I’ve been thinking a lot lately about non-binary intersecting identities—well, actually, I’ve always thought a lot about them, but lately I’ve decided to more fully flesh out my thoughts in order to share them with you—and right now I’m thinking about the poly lifestyle, and what it means to identify as poly, and how the meaning of the identification can change depending on other lifestyle intersections. Not too long ago I had a conversation with a friend who’s relatively new to the lifestyle about how when you start attending poly events there’s always someone (and usually more than one someone) who wants to impart their very firm beliefs of what perfect poly is, and how someone who identifies as poly should act, the kinds of rules that should be in place, and whatever else they feel is correct in their belief system. And though we are two people with very different, backgrounds, collections of experiences, and ways of living the poly lifestyle, we agreed quickly that:
There is no perfect poly.
The thing is, perfection is a tenuous concept, especially in any non-traditional lifestyle. And let’s face it, it’s a tenuous idea in traditional lifestyles too, it’s just not really spoken about in such terms because living a traditional lifestyle usually means that you’re amenable to living within the structures and constraints understood by the collective majority. Which is fine when that works for you, and it’s also fine when your perfect idea of poly works for you, but what’s not fine is trying to impose whatever perfect structure you’ve constructed for your life on someone else. Not to mention that having a perfected structure for what poly means might tend to impose a rigidity that can work with a certain set of partners, as long as things don’t change a lot within that structure, which is rarely the case.
For example, let’s consider the single poly person. As so eloquently elaborated on in The Critical Polyamorist’s post about Couple-centricity, Polyamory, and Colonialism (which offers important perspectives that go far beyond the scope this post), there is a tendency in the poly community to default to couple-centricity, which has the effect of emphasizing a hierarchy of relationships within the poly structure, and can sometimes relegate the single poly person to a lower status within the community. This is not something that happens across the board, and is an idea that fluctuates widely depending on personal perspective and experience, but that it does exist is a good reminder of how easily we can unconsciously fall into systems put in place by the mainstream majority.
That is not to say that the idea of couple-centricity is a bad thing—it’s just as easy for people in the poly community to insist that hierarchy within poly relationships is not the perfect way to do poly, and terms like primary and secondary or ancillary are hierarchy-reinforcing and therefore destructive to the perfect poly lifestyle, to which I say: Mind your own perfection! After all, every relationship fluctuates, and the way that we feel about a partner or a combination of partners will shift depending on many factors, including the coming and going of NRE (new relationship energy), and other factors such as whether or not one or more partners identifies as kinky, or has time constraints because of work, school, or other obligations, et cetera. One example of this is neatly laid out in the concept of “Not Better, Just Different” described by Silverwolf for The Polyamory Society.
I like Silverwolf’s discussion of NRE versus ORE (old relationship energy), but I don’t think there’s any one correct way to deal with things in the poly structure. For example, let’s take the case of a long-standing ancillary poly partner with a new primary partner in the throes of NRE—can there be a perfect approach in handling this situation? While one person’s idea of perfect poly might be that all loves be equal, they just aren’t always, and therefore sometimes hierarchy becomes part of a structure where it didn’t exist before. (The author of Poly Styles describes hierarchical versus egalitarian styles of poly in their post on Living Poly.) This can be a difficult situation to deal with when you’re used to an egalitarian poly structure, and there’s no easy or necessarily correct answer for how to react. It depends entirely on the new agreements that the primary couple ends up having, and how those agreements mesh well or differ from the agreements you have with your ancillary poly partner. Relationships change just like feelings change just like people change over time. A shift in focus and attention might feel like rejection or neglect, but it does not have to be perceived that way, and a thoughtful investigation into the concept of compersion can do wonders in this situation.
Another type of poly relationship that is often controversial within the poly community is the platonic poly partner. There are those who say that there is no such thing, that a platonic poly relationship is “just” a non-sexual friendship, so why call it poly? To that I would say the same thing to someone who says a single poly person might be considered someone who is “just” dating different people—if you identify as poly, and your partner identifies as poly, and you agree that you are in a poly relationship together, then you are in a poly relationship together, regardless of whether or not or how or when sex enters into the arrangement. (For an astute example, see S. E. Smith’s definition of the word “queerplatonic.”) I don’t like to apply rules to identification, but I will assert that self-identification is key: Nobody else gets to decide how poly you are or aren’t.
Now that I’ve drilled it home that there is no “perfect poly,” here are excerpts from Dr. Kenneth Haslam’s The 12 Pillars of Polyamory, which I feel quite strongly is a collection of guidelines that would help reinforce the fluidity in anyone’s definition of a perfect relationship, poly or not:
You must know yourself and be comfortable being you.
(I would just add, do the best you can. Nobody is always entirely comfortable with themselves, or knows exactly who they are, and identities shift and change over time. So I would paraphrase this to say: Be on a constant search for authentic authenticity.)
A grounded and balanced Poly understands they are free to make decisions about how they will live their life.
(Nothing to add here.)
Although some will disagree, I firmly believe that there should be no secrets in Polyamory.
(While I tend to agree with this idea, and what others might call radical honesty, I also believe that disclosure is a very personal thing that should be done on a timeline and with people as aligned to the individual’s comfort level. I do personally believe that transparency in one’s identifying as non-monogamous should happen right away, however. That said, this is not always possible when you’re not sure exactly how you identify, in which case the transparent conversation would go something like: I’m not sure how I identify in terms of non-monogamy.)
A quick definition of trust is: firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something.
(Side note: Trust comes with time, and should not be given too freely, or withheld too stringently. Again, this is according to the individual’s timeline and comfort level.)
V. GENDER EQUALITY
What is good for the goose is good for the gander.
(And also for those who are neither goose nor gander.)
(I think this goes without saying, though I also will refer you back to what I said about transparency.)
VII. OPEN COMMUNICATION
Although this overlaps other Pillars it is so important it is worth repeating.
(I think this should be #1.)
No one owns anyone.
(I very much believe this, though of course there is the case in which someone is kinky and their partner identifies as being owned by them, and we could get in a very long philosophical conversation about what that really means.)
Everyone knows what is going on in all the partners’ lives and everyone AGREES to what is going on.
(This should also be #1, if there can be two #1s. And I happen to believe that 2 #1s is a perfectly poly premise.)
X. ACCEPTING OF SELF DETERMINATION
Understanding that each of us is different is essential. Encouraging your partners to follow their own life’s path is mandatory.
(Absolutely, otherwise you’re in a coercive relationship.)
XI. SEX POSITIVE
Sexuality is, of course, a major part of Polyamorous relationships and all partners being in agreement on sexual matters is essential.
(And practice safer sex obvi!)
Understanding and embracing compersion is the essence of successful Polyamorous relationships.
(I’ll link to Dr. Elisabeth Sheff’s Psychology Today article on compersion again here, because I agree that this is paramount, and if we can have two #1s we can also have three!)
*The above 12 pillars are direct quotes from Dr. Hansen, and my sidenotes are italicized in parentheses.