Sunday, November 17, 2013

Developing your poly-style

Before we get started on this bit, I want to tell you a little more about my relationship style.

I am a cisgendered*, heteroflexible, polyamorous, kinky** woman. I like to date people who identify as male and polyamorous. I like vanillay and kinky guys, and a person's sexual orientation doesn't really factor in to my dating choices, provided the person I want to date likes to have romantic and sexual relationships with women (otherwise, we'd just be friends). My relationship style aims toward long-term stable, fairly serious relationships, (I fall in love really easily); I also believe it's possible to have someone as a lover or partner, even if you aren't having sex with them and don't have any plans to. This is kind of the opposite of a friends-with-benefits relationship, because instead of only doing the sex together, a platonic lover does everything but the sex with you.

Further, I believe in egalitarianism in my relationships. That is, I don't subscribe to hierarchies***, I don't allow my relationships to affect each other (except to the extent that they effect my well-being), and I pretty much make my own rules. I do live with one of my partners, Ten, and we are fully committed to each other, as one would be to a mental institution; but we each maintain a solopoly-ish sort of style based on years of stubborn independence and one of the primary goals of our relationship being that neither of us becomes simply an adjunct of the other. I am not Mrs. Ten. He is not Mr. Empress. It doesn't work that way. With Jack, we're happy at the "dating" step on the "relationship escalator", and that's good for us. We do things socially with shared friends (I've even made a whole bunch of new friends because of him), in addition to going on dates and doing all the normal things you do when you're dating someone. Pond is another story all together, see the reverse-FWB explanation above.

So, that's the basics of my relationship style. I don't make rules, I don't follow rules, and I do everything I can to understand and establish boundaries in my relationships so that we can all not be dicks to each other. I have to say, it's working really well. But, it only works because I took the time to figure it out in the first place.
One of my biggest peeves are people who just decide one day "I'm polyamorous!" without taking the time to decide what that means. I would say that this jump-without-looking philosophy of venturing out into non-monogamy is how people get hurt and why therapists will tell you "oh that doesn't work because blah blah blah". Of course it's not going to work (or not going to work as well or for very long) if you don't know what you're doing! Here, I drew you a metaphor:
click to enlarge
1)Tree hears about a thing called books and wants to become something that has a lot of books in it
2)Tree decides to remove herself from her previous way of life and go to the lumber mill where
3)She begins the refinement process by being cut down into fine planks of wood
4)A lot of measuring and investigation is done so that the bookcase will be able to fit in the appropriate space, and be compatible with the kinds of books she wants
5)After some discomfort and lots of hard work, our tree-turned-book-case is ready to start dating some books. She still needs some refinement, and not every book she likes will be a good fit, but at least she has a good place to start

Obviously people are not trees or books*' or bookcases, and once a tree becomes a bookcase there's no going back; and there are a number of other problems with this metaphor*''. However, this isn't the transformation from monogamous tree to polyamorous bookcase, but rather the transformation of the skills required to move from one to the other. The old ways have to die before new ones can be developed. You must go through a period of refinement where old habits are stripped away and new ones can be sanded and varnished into place. Once you've developed your bookcase, you can put as many or as few books in it as you want, on whatever subject you want, but you will never not have made that journey, and you will be able to keep the self-knowledge and relationship skills you gained by undergoing the transformation.

This isn't an Ikea bookshelf either*'''. There are no prefab Planks of Communication, no pre-measured and pre-drilled Dimensions of Self-Knowledge, and while you'll still have pieces left over, you'll have enough material to make something else too. But, sometimes projects like these don't work out, and this metaphorical tree isn't meant to be a bookcase. That's okay too. There are a lot of uses for a self-actualized tree which has already begun going through the refinement process.

*Google is your friend.
**Sorry mom.
***Not to be confused with prioritizing based on desire, time, and level of connectedness, hierarchy establishes that there is a "primary" partner whose needs always come first and who sometimes gets to have a say in their partner's other relationships. I think this is bullshit. I'm not passing judgment or saying "yer doin it rong" if this is how you poly, I'm just saying that we aren't compatible.
*'I, however, am really comfortable comparing my partners to books. I think my books might also qualify as partners...
*''I hear you treehuggers, don't write me letters.
*'''I hear you Ikeahuggers, don't write me letters.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Polyamory and the meaning of life

I've had a rough year. I mean, by the standards of the butchest, toughest, strongest people I know, I've had a rough year. A lot of other people for whom I care a great deal have also been having a tough time the past year or two, and I'm pretty sure that the ones who are making it are doing it by the sheer force of will of the people who love them.

Because while I've had a tough time this last year, I've become closer with some very important people (partners, friends, and family), who have each been a reason I've continued to be able to face the days. Without them, I would be lost, broken, and probably homeless, if not dead. Of the other people I know who have been rolling 1s in life lately, those with the best support system are the ones doing their best work - I'm talking the stuff that's going to allow them to hit it big or reach other gigantic life goals.

You always hear about how adversity builds character, and it probably does but not for the reasons we're lead to believe. You don't become great by pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, you become great by asking for and receiving help. Those of us born without metaphorical boots (or feet!) can achieve greatness, but we can't do it on our own, and besides that what good is greatness if you don't have anyone to share it with.

The purpose of life, so far as I can tell, is relationships. There is that no one who is self-made and there is no such thing as being independent and self-sufficient. Ours is an incredibly social species, and our deepest desires are to connect with others and feel loved and accepted by our tribes. Of course, modern American life is devoid of most tribalism, unless you're part of a faith community or other club; and a lot of people are stuck looking for meaning in places that don't provide it. Polyamory provides this in some ways, turning the nuclear family into a tribe of interconnected, interdependent people who have more than friendship riding on their willingness to help pick up the slack when someone gets sick*.

When children are involved, a poly household or community, like a faith community, will jump in to make sure a child's needs are being met. While those who hold to the Bootstraps lifestyle might do this by hiring someone or sending said child to daycare or a friend's house, there is something precious in the role of the non-biological parent. My own limited experience with child-rearing, and the observations I've made of kids who grow up in poly families, is that when there's always a caring, trusted adult around (whose interest in the child is not financial, tutorial, or disciplinary but affection and love) kids are better socialized and better adjusted. And they grow up to be better humans than the rest of us**.

Part of growing up and becoming an adult is learning how to lean on others when in need and learning how to provide for others when they are in need. We're not here solely to get for ourselves and then steal away into solitude. Even those in the monastic lifestyle (monks and nuns in religious orders, and other ascetic people) develop their interdependence with others in their order or immediate vicinity. That is the entire reason our species evolved to take over the entire planet: we work together to make each other great. A leader may become ill and reclusive, but her tribe will make sure she is taken care of. Were she to refuse, she would do her tribe-mates a great insult. We do this in American culture by taking in our parents when they become ill or elderly, but it's seen as a burden, and an ever-divisive culture of capitalism jumped at the opportunity to let you pay to have someone else take care of your aged or indigent parents. When you think about it too long, that becomes rather cruel.

Meanwhile, the driving forces of our culture seek to divide us further by saying that it's somehow immoral or harmful to help those who cannot help themselves. Those people will figure it out and get a job, they say. "If you don't work, you don't eat," they say. The rest of us chant "work will make me free"*** and feel shamed when we have to ask for help making ends meet, or putting food on the table, or getting to the doctor. A culture which habitually denigrates the most vulnerable among us is one that opposes our very nature! It pits us at the bottom against each other, and when we fight, nobody benefits but the people gambling on who is going to win.

So, maybe I'm not a capitalist anymore. Maybe all this time I have spent asking my loves to help me has humbled me to the point where I no longer wish to do it all on my own. I don't want to be helpless (no one does), but you see even when I am financially dependent on one partner, occasionally physically dependent on another, and emotionally dependent on each of my loves (each in their own way), I'm not helpless. Each of us has a skill, a talent, an ability, that when we pool these resources and work together we achieve more than we ever could on our own. Maybe none of us is going to be the next internet millionaire, but by helping each other build our lives we create intimacy, emotional stability, and yes, even happiness. I am happier having a poly family than I ever could have been in a nuclear family, even in the face of everything I've been through in the last year.

Every year when I go to the doctor to get my birth control prescription there are two seemingly random questions: do you feel safe in your relationship(s)? and do you have a network of trusted individuals who are able to provide emotional support? These questions aren't asked of me because I'm poly. They aren't asked because I have a history of self-harming behaviours. These questions are asked of every person who goes to that doctor's office because it's a public health issue. We're a social species. We actually literally need each other to survive. Whether that's in a family or close circle of friends, or even a polycule, you must have those people you can ask help from; you must have those people with whom you build intimacy and trust by doing things together that those in the Bootstrap lifestyle think a person "should" be able to do on their own.

But, as the unattributed "African proverb" goes, if you want to go fast: go alone; if you want to go far: go together. Why insist on doing something by yourself when you can have help? Why insist on independence when interdependence is more efficient and helps you be happier and healthier? Why force others to do it themselves and "build character" when you can be rewarded by helping?

It's true, some people are happier alone, and everyone needs time to themselves. And yes, it is true that some people are awful and don't want to do their fair share to keep a community going*'. But if you are lonely and miserable and find yourself unable to connect with anyone, do you think it's really because you're better off stubbornly insisting that you do everything yourself? Or are you just building walls because, as Groucho said, you don't want to be a part of any club that would have you as a member?

Me? I'll take my weakness. I'll take my illness. I'll take the lessons I've learned from being sick and having to ask for help and build a community all the way to the bank. I'll watch my budding rockstar friend whose network has only expanded since she's been clambering for stability. I'll watch and cheer and support as hard as I can as her music composition and artistic concepts become so much more incredible and in touch with the soul of human experience. I'll watch my partners grow as leaders, learn how to delegate and how to ask for help even while they're making sure that the needs of their tribespersons are met. I'll watch my favorite teenagers become capable, well-adjusted adults who know how and when to ask for help, and that they are valuable enough to receive help and be worthy of love and belonging.

And, sadly, I'll watch those who continue to think that they can do everything on their own sink, and I'll be very sad that I can't help them.

*I speak from experience here. Pond and Jack have helped to take care of me while I've been sick and grieving this year, and the amount of care I have needed has been beyond what one person could provide under the best of circumstances.
**I am thinking specifically of three teenage girls who are each insane and insufferably teenage girls, but who will probably be better humans than most of the people I know because of the structure of their upbringing and the sheer number of adults who have a vested interest in them being well-care-for since their birth. Also worth considering are the few adults I know who grew up in polyamorous homes, whose maturity, self-knowledge, and bravery in the face of insane life-puzzles rivals the wisest monk.
***Because we in the West learned the wrong lessons from Auschwitz.
*'I really strongly recommend not having these people involved in your Burning Man project.