“Polyamory must be tailored to personal circumstances; it is broad enough include both relationships that are entirely fluid, and ones that reinforce patterns of stability,” writes Angelus Morningstar.
Polyamoury and other forms of consensual non-monogamy cannot depend on traditional conventions to set the expectations of relationships and requires fluid negotiations around boundaries. The joke runs that the difference between swingers and poly is that the former gets to have sex with other people, while the latter simply talks about it.
The most powerful component of polyamoury is that it is dynamic or fluid. It challenges presumptions that relationships must be based on stability, longevity, and exclusivity. This article seeks to reflect on this, to unpack the way in which poly and non-monogamous people redefine fidelity away from its traditional expectations.
The underlying tension is a question of mental and emotional security, as we derive personal security from the people around us. They are touchstones of our lived-experience and mirrors to our psyche. We engage with people through various affinities, and in return we are informed by the company we keep.
The experience of security for any given relationship is a psycho-social paradigm. Traditional relationships exploit a ready-made model of security through romantic, emotional, and sexual exclusivity. The paradigm creates a shared space of intimacy where we can eschew our personal defences. Poly people have since developed a large repertoire of paradigms to customise relationships.
For some, it is necessary to recognise the privileged status of one relationship over another or establishing precedence, even using labels like primary/secondary. For other people, the formalisation of such relationships is antithetical and would prefer a paradigm to be more anarchical. Generally, most poly dynamics tend to exist somewhere on the spectrum from strongly defined hierarchies to loosely defined anarchies.
There is certainly a power in calling one partner a spouse and another a lover, as this implicitly privileges one over another. On the other hand, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, when those terms are used consciously.
This article argues that both poly and mono people (usually) seek fidelity, but have different expectations on what it constitutes. This is etymological sleight-of-hand, as I’m splitting hairs over usage of the word, between the technical meaning of ‘loyal’ and ‘faithful’, and deliberately setting aside the social connotation of also meaning romantic and sexual exclusivity.
However, this is an instructive sleight-of-hand, because it allows us to face the challenge presented by this article: how we can construct an ideal of fidelity that can suit a given relationship, formed through honesty and loyalty but not necessarily with exclusivity.
Social convention typically links the fidelity of monogamy to a range of material and emotional security. It all underlines the socio-economic advantages that established couples (or groups) possess, and their implicit reciprocal material (i.e. financial) commitments. The reality is that threats to the relationship put that material security into jeopardy as well.
Material components of relationships cannot be understated or ignored (especially if children are relevant). Nevertheless, one advantage that poly offers is exploring the permutations of relationships. A couple (or group) can still remain as a family unit, while permitting “extramarital” romance and sex, even after their own relationship is no longer romantic or sexual.
Yet, all of this ignores the major unspoken issue while also begging the question on whether opening a relationship must signal the beginning of the end. The reality is that sometimes the healthiest option is to bring a relationship to an end upon good terms, and make conscientious choices about what that means in terms of family, finances, children (if relevant) and other lovers (if relevant).
This is part of a broader conversation that is circling poly communities (but going back a while): namely, the notion of couple privilege. It looks to the societal advantages established couples have, especially if they pass as traditionally monogamous. From a poly perspective, this draws attention to how certain relationships are considered more legitimate than others, by implying that casual affairs, triads, moresomes, and swinging must be less legitimate.
Part of that critique considered polyamoury as being a privileged activity accessible to “rich, white, pretty people”. In other words, poly amounts to little more than indulging personal and hedonistic affleunce, made possible through socio-economic advantages.
It’s a seductive thought, but there are a few direct responses, including polyamoury enabling social mobility, and the prevalence or meaning borne from non-monogamous relationships outside the West (some would read similar to polyamoury, others not).
The dialogue is useful in highlighting the socio-economic advantages that intersect with traditional and nontraditional relationships alike. Especially considering how traditional relationships enjoy social favouritism and legal privilege (see the institution of marriage).
For poly folk, this is background noise to more personal discussions around fidelity, authenticity, and recognition. They are perhaps put in a most stark relief when an established couple opens their relationship up (especially in search of a third).
One of the contentions around this is the use of labels and definitions, because they tend to categorise people. There is certainly a power in calling one partner a spouse and another a lover, as this implicitly privileges one over another. On the other hand, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, when those terms are used consciously.
Labels are useful to break down complexity, which is a really valuable tool when dealing with complex relationships like poly. So while all these relationship terms come prepackaged with their own baggage, that doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful if we are mindful and accepting of said baggage. For couples opening up for the first time, labels and names are beneficial in dealing with the uncertainty of negotiating a new paradigm of fidelity.
More importantly, for established couples (and groups) recognising the history of a relationship is important, particularly ones that have several years behind them and have functioned as families for children.
There is a world of difference for poly folk entering into relationships having experienced non-monogamy prior, compared to historically monogamous couples who are just starting out. The former already awareness of their own preferences, and the latter can only able discover in the context of their partner.
This is not to say that poly must be a solo journey; being poly is as much about the relationships as the personal experience. Poly is adapting to multiple and possible changing circumstances, to develop a nuanced skill set of negotiation and compromises.
In principle, all is permitted provided mutual informed consent is practiced.
This is both a strength and a limitation, because established relationships come with built-in support for times of uncertainty. However, the attempt to discover a new and unique experience that is both personal and authentic is encumbered with an existing partner.
That is, when exploring poly and openness as a couple for the first time, it is almost impossible to self-discover without implicitly reflecting back onto the partner.
This discussion outlines a tension within poly communities over the ‘right’ way to have relationships. Mostly this is criticism of the perpetuation of hierarchy in relationships, which conform to relationships of control, dominance, and power.
However, in accepting that the dichotomy must be hierarchy-anarchy, one makes the presumption that all non-anarchistic relationships must be hierarchical. The usefulness of this critique is the way it gives licence to questioning the structures of relationships, to consider whether certain dynamics within the relationship aren’t just following entrenched systems of power inherited from social conventions.
Polyamoury has an underlying message of embracing fluidity, but ultimately it must be tailored to personal circumstances. Specifically, polyamoury is broad enough include both relationships that are entirely fluid, and ones that reinforce patterns of stability. In principle, all is permitted provided mutual informed consent is practiced.
The fidelity of non-monogamy is formed through consent, including the consent of the newly included. Consent can be governed by explicitly by rules or consent can be informed by implicitly by knowledge of personal boundaries; the former is easier to negotiate but the latter requires a knowledge of a partner’s needs. As long as there is honesty and loyalty, non-monogamy can have fidelity.
Being a working dad and raising two kids is hard work. Just like being a working mom raising kids is hard work.
The other day I heard something that really struck me. I’ve always been in awe of single moms, moms in general, and working moms with the challenges they face in working and raising kids. Heck, I have enough trouble running a business and feeding myself! But I haven’t often thought about the dads. My friend Charlie said, “Hey I’m trying to be the best dad I can be, and sometimes that means being a mom too.” I was floored.
Charlie and I were discussing how he approaches his oldest daughter at 13 years old, when they talk about her feelings; something he’s gotten quite good at over the years he’s been raising her alone. He’s making sure to check in on how she’s feeling as much as she’ll let him. “I ask what’s going on, how she is, what she’s feeling…and just hope that’s what she needs. I hope that she understands that I’m always there for her and how much I love her.”
It was the way he acknowledged his dual role, with no expectation of applause or kudos, that impressed me. After all, he’s just a working dad, like so many others, doing whatever is best for his two girls. Right?
Right. But being a working dad and raising two kids is hard work. Just like being a mom raising kids is hard work.
Charlie’s mantra is, “I do whatever has to be done. No one is going to give me a medal for it.” This “whatever” often means leaving work earlier to pick up a kid, cutting his socializing out completely, and being in bed by 8:30pm, or going shopping for dresses and shoes. Ahem, “cool dresses and shoes.” Now that’s one heckuva dad.
Doing whatever needs to be done.
It occurred to me how many wonderful dads I know personally who are doing the same thing, evoking the loving nurturance one might typically equate with … mothers. They are the nurturer, the soft place, the compassionate one, the advisor, and the provider. Maybe they are also the ones that pick up the kids, and the ones that soothe the nightmares.
One father has full-time care of both his 11 and 14 year-old, a boy and a girl respectively. “It’s the activities that really get me! I have to be at work, then get my son to rugby practice over 30 minutes away three times a week. Then games on Saturday. And now my daughter has her own activities and I haven’t been able to convince her to play rugby. Yet.”
And they don’t have to be part of a two-dad couple, or a single father, to play the mom role. Many men may also do it in traditional heteronormative marriages and relationships. Check out the blog post “I Have a Dream.”
I met with Grant on the issue of nightmares his son was consistently having. Grant wasn’t sure of the best way to help his son, and in his frustration he called on me to get some insight and techniques. After talking and discussing the common themes, I asked his son: “What’s the most powerful superpower you could bring into your dreams with you? What’s one thing that you could use to to banish the monsters? Would you have a sword? A light saber? A shield?” and that ended up being the thing that finally worked.
Grants says it’s been a lesson in how to be a heart-centered dad and the provider. All the while getting the little life things like cooking, cleaning, sewing on buttons, doing laundry AND being the compassionate one to kiss the boo-boo’s.
“I’ve had to learn to be available to my son in ways that push me to access what would normally be considered feminine roles, like nurturing and compassion. Usually a guy would slap his son on the butt when he’s upset, and tell him to ‘buck up’; but I’ve had to dig deeper and take on more of the traditional feminine compassionate and nurturing roles as well.”
GMP writher Doug Zeigler addresses the question of being a divorced dad or a single parent in his article “Single Father, Divorced Dad“.
Stepping into your other half sometimes means doing things that aren’t within the stereotypical wheelhouse of skills that men acquire prior to being a father, especially if those men have girls. Hair, makeup, boys, unique types of laundry (no, we don’t wash everything in hot and dry it in the dryer!); discussing feelings, understanding hormones, soothing hurt feelings, talking about mean girls, liking Barbies or Disney movies, playing a princess (or a queen), or kissing a skinned knee … dads are doing what needs to be done.
For millions of families, the structure of the family has nothing to do with “normal American family,” and this is a shout out to all the dads who are doing their very best to be the best dad (and mom) that they can be. Are they “mothers”? No. Did they give birth? No. But they are doing whatever is needed to be the best they can for their kids.
Whether it’s shared custody, single father households, two dads, working or absent mothers or any number of unique situations here’s a big “thank you” to all those good men doing whatever they have to do for the sake of the kids.
Related Article: “Ten Reasons Men Are Awesome” by Thomas G. Fiffer
Photo—courtesy of Charlie Groves
If you think proposing is the hardest part of engagement, think again.
Someone once told me that getting engaged throws couples into a new stage in their lives. One where they have to take off the blindfolds they were wearing during the dating process. I laughed when they said it, believing engagement to be a reprieve from relationship drama: a middle ground between finding love and making it last forever. And then my now-husband proposed to me, and I had to humble myself to the fact that the anonymous source was right. Engagement brings with it new challenges and relationship disturbances.
Quite honestly, being engaged sucked.
Looking back at planning, I’m thankful we decided to have a destination wedding in six months, instead of scheduling a full-blown affair at home (and taking a year to get things settled). Because, quite honestly, being engaged sucked.
My now-husband once stared at me across the dining room table, sassy girl turned stressed out soon-to-be bride. We’d already lived together for a full year, time I’m thankful we spent together. Still, his eyes, glossed over with anxiety, were wide enough to show the beginning stages of a forehead wrinkle.
“I thought asking you to marry me would be the hardest thing we faced until we were married.”
“I thought asking you to marry me would be the hardest thing we faced until we were married.”
That’s when I realized I should have already warned him about the intricacies of planning.
Just last night we sat at the same dining room table, now husband and wife, and I asked him what he would have liked to know about the engagement stage. What would have helped him better survive the process, if somebody could tell him how to cope.
This is what he said.
Plan on your fiancée being stressed out.
Here I am, a week from getting married, and other people are worried about what they’re going to eat for ONE meal. It just about did me in.
Seems obvious, right? Except there are details that won’t be shared with you because your fiancée thinks he/she can handle it. I didn’t share everything because I didn’t want him to stress about things that didn’t truly matter to him. For example, just a week before the wedding I received eight separate phone calls from family members asking about the rehearsal dinner. I told people what they should wear (when I didn’t care), I repeated the same time and place to each of them and I recited menu options they could have found online. Yes, this is a first-world problem, but it’s also kind of overwhelming. Here I am, a week from getting married, and other people are worried about what they’re going to eat for ONE meal. It just about did me in.
My fiancé, oblivious to the problem (because it wasn’t one until that moment) responded with, “Well, they just want to know. Why are you making such a big deal out of this?” You can imagine it wasn’t a great day in his life.
You’re definitely not going to get anywhere if both of you are freaking out. Listen. Empathize (even if you don’t understand). Ask if you can help.
If you don’t want her to worry, take worry off her plate.
If you don’t want her to worry, take worry off her plate. By offering to return phone calls, you’re providing an answer to her without directly telling her to chill out.
Nerves don’t go away until you’re married.
I could tell when he started to panic, and I didn’t take it personally. If the dude wasn’t thinking about the magnitude of the decision we were about to make, it would have scared me more. Still, there were moments I questioned whether or not he’d back out on me, fearful he’d realized he wasn’t ready and waited too long to tell me.
I asked him on several occasions if the nerves were manageable or if they were worthy of a second discussion about our future. Every time we talked about it, he was honest (and still on board). After we had the conversation a few too many times, he came up with a game plan on how to handle the anxiety.
We focused on what made us a strong couple to begin with, and we did the things we enjoyed without talking about the future.
First, he planned nights out (or nights at home) when we simply chose not to do anything wedding related. We focused on what made us a strong couple to begin with, and we did the things we enjoyed without talking about the future. Living in the moment helped both of us remember why we’d decided to get married in the first place.
Second, he started taking more of an active role in the planning of our day, and chose to take charge when we got to the registry. He scanned everything he could, because—in his words—who gives a shit? That scanner is awesome.
Communicate like your life depends on it.
If you can get through the engagement and wedding, you can get through anything else. The light at the end of the tunnel? Being married. All of the worrying, anxiety and nervousness created a solid foundation for the rest of our marriage. We communicated when necessary and learned how to let go.
Even if you think some detail is stupid or unnecessary, showing your concern for it also shows your concern for your future life partner.
We eliminated the first two concerns by acting on the third. And by always, always, always sharing his ideas or thoughts, we dealt with unexpected emotions as they came up, avoiding panic attacks or unnecessary arguments. Even if you think some detail is stupid or unnecessary, showing your concern for it also shows your concern for your future life partner.
At the end of it all, my husband says it’s all worth it: the stress of choosing between photographers and his wardrobe gone, we were married on the beach in front of our closest friends and family.
Our lines of communication are stronger than ever. It’s why I could write this piece without feeling like I was hearing his opinion or concerns for the first time. It’s why I can laugh at the stress I felt while trying to plan the perfect day in our lives together. And, it’s why I know we’ve built stronger relationship skills to deal with problems as they come up, for the rest of our lives.
Dear Son, This Is The Hardest Letter I Have Ever Written…