Descriptive Hierarchy is a Misnomer

When you view your partners, and yourself, as autonomous individuals who exist in proximity to each other but aren’t defined by it, you’re rewarded with relationships based on secure connections between adults.

Hierarchy gets a bad rap in the non-monogamous community for a number of reasons. It’s often the product of a formerly monogamous couple opening up and wanting to mitigate fear and insecurity by limiting what can happen outside of their relationship. Many times, the “primary” couple make agreements within their dyad that infringe upon each other’s autonomy as well as the privacy and agency of any other partners they become involved with. This type of hierarchy exists on a vast spectrum, but for many reasons, prioritizing the original couple to the detriment of all other relationships doesn’t find favor with most folks who’ve practiced non-monogamy long enough to have seen this go badly over and over again.

Anytime hierarchy is brought up in the context of non-monogamy to debate whether or not it’s a good thing for everyone involved, you will inevitably see someone break down the concept of “descriptive hierarchy” vs. “prescriptive hierarchy.” To those unfamiliar with these concepts, they basically boil down to:

  • a prescribed ranking of relationships (i.e. there is a primary/most important one, and all others will be considered lesser in whatever ways the primary couple has deemed works for them) 
  • and a descriptive one in which a relationship appears primary when there is actually just a lot of enmeshment, investment, and shared responsibilities, etc.

Unfortunately, descriptive hierarchy is often prescriptive hierarchy in disguise, but you can recognize it (in yourself, and others) when it asserts the following:

  • I am married to this person, (or I was here first), so I should have some say in what they do with other people because it affects me to a greater degree
  • I share children with this person, so I should have some say in what they do with other people to ensure that our children are prioritized
  • I cohabit with this person, so I should have some say in what they do with other people because I live here and it’s my house, too

I mean, I get it. But, I also know it’s possible to do these things with adults I’m not in a romantic/sexual relationship with, and I do not need my romantic/sexual relationship elevated above all others in order to ensure the mutual obligations we have in those areas are met. Instead, I trust my fellow adults to fulfill their obligations just like I plan to, regardless of any other aspect of our relationship.

To prescriptively rank a co-parenting relationship higher than others is disingenuous in that it’s the relationship with one’s children that’s the priority in that context, not the partnership of the parents. People co-parent with former partners all the time, therefore it behooves us to see parenting as a responsibility completely separate from our romantic/sexual relationships. Of course there should be agreements regarding mutual child-rearing obligations, family time, and a litany of other things . . . but there is nothing about co-parenting that requires your co-parent to be ranked above your other partners or granted special controls or powers that affect them. After all, if having younger children together is what elevates a relationship, what happens when they grow up and move out? Is that when all relationships will be allowed equanimity? 

Living together is a big deal, but platonic roommates don’t elevate their roommate relationship above all others simply because they cohabit. If you’re a non-monogamous person who lives with one (or more) of your partners, you could consider them an autonomous roommate during times you’re not scheduled to be with them. For me, this means being able to come and go as I please or have others over so long as I respect existing cohabitation agreements, such as letting housemates know when I’ll have a guest over and ensuring that I clean up after them.

Marriage is often elevated above all other relationships by default. This is supported by the society I live in and it’s not difficult to see that approach making a lot of sense . . . after all, most folks enter into marriage believing they will become and remain the most important person to this other person, forever and ever, until they die. Welp, that’s nice and all, but it’s also the monogamous marriage script. The non-monogamous marriage script doesn’t have to read like that, and perhaps it makes more sense for it not to, considering non-monogamy already rejects a prime tenet of traditional marriage by definition. But we have to write it as we go.

Okay, but how?

I’m so glad to pretend you asked!!

Here are some tips for surviving in a relationship model that honors the autonomy of each individual:

Calendars, planning, and schedules:

When you share responsibilities for things like household maintenance, childcare, or various other projects that require mutual investment, the importance of having a plan to meet those obligations cannot be overstated. A best practice in my life is negotiating what each party is responsible for, and then discussing how those obligations will be met in a way that works for each individual. 

I’m the kind of person who likes to clean my home independent of direction and free from the obligation to manage others. Simply put, I want the adults I cohabit with to do what needs to be done without needing to be asked. I also do not want to be directed in that area; if someone wants something clean that I have not cleaned, surely they are capable. I do not need or want others to clean while I am cleaning. I want folks to clean when it works best for them. I harbor no resentment for anyone who naps while I vacuum, but I want the same in return. There is a clear separation in my household between relationships and chores; one has nothing to do with the other.

When my children were younger, I co-parented with my spouse for a time, and then I co-parented with my former spouse. During our marriage and cohabitation, we had a defined schedule for parental responsibilities and scheduled family time when we could both be present. Outside of that, we had independent careers and social lives. Our children reaped the benefits of dedicated one-on-one time as well as family time, and we kept our co-parenting obligation separate from our romantic partnership which was fed by intentional time together with things like date nights and time away. After our marriage ended, co-parenting continued and the other things did not.

In the nesting relationship I currently enjoy, we have scheduled date nights once a week and some time every other weekend. We had a similar schedule as a non-nesting couple and agreed it was a good idea to retain it when we opted to share a living space. In many ways we are emotionally close roommates whose time is our own to do with as we please. There is no expectation of occupying each other’s free time simply because we both happen to be home. Living together doesn’t mean we have dibs on each other’s time.

Intentional autonomy as a guiding principle:

Recently, my live-in partner traveled out of town for a week and we postponed our regular date night until two days after his return because he had an appointment to keep. When he cancelled that appointment to schedule a date with someone else, I felt slighted because I had wanted that time with him if he was available. After sucking-it-up, I decided to go out and have a good time that evening as well. The day before his return, he said he expected to be home on the earlier side after his date and was looking forward to spending that time with me. I was taken aback by his assumption that I would be available! In the end, we both had to admit our assumptions crept into areas we try very hard to work against. Shit happens.

In that scenario, my inclination was to assume priority since we would already be missing each other and his was to assume my immediate availability once he was done with his evening plans. What we were able to remind ourselves of is that if we want to see each other, we need to ask for that time and agree to spend it together. The minor uncomfortable feelings associated with that reminder faded away when it became evident we really both wanted the same thing: to reconnect after several days apart. 

Rejecting the “default partner” narrative is difficult but empowering in the long term. You may spend the majority of your time with one partner due to enmeshment, shared responsibilities, or any number of valid reasons, but it doesn’t have to mean that person comes first in all other ways. 

  • Ask your partners to be honest with you about whether or not they feel ranked
  • Make an effort to unpack any latent desire you might have to be seen or considered “primary” 
  • Compartmentalize your adult responsibilities away from your adult relationships

When you view your partners, and yourself, as autonomous individuals who exist in proximity to each other but aren’t defined by it, you’re rewarded with relationships based on secure connections between adults. I find that infinitely preferable to ones filled with assumptions, unmet expectations, and resentments—all of which hierarchy (of any kind) is a fertile breeding ground for.


***Footnote: one of the originators of the term “descriptive hierarchy” has, themselves, come out against it. You can read their personal essay on the topic here: I Apologize To The Entire Poly Community For This One

Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Finite Resources in Relationships

Love is abundant and not a zero sum game. That is, loving others will never reduce what’s available for others. We experience this all the time with friends, children, siblings, etc. It truly is an infinite resource. 

But while love is an infinite resource, our lives are full of others that are. Regardless of your relationship structure, you’re going to have to decide how to allocate them in a way that works for you and those you care about. Time, money and energy are three of the most common ones people struggle with.

Society tells us that once you find “The One,” your resources should largely go to them. Different people have different needs. For instance, I put the extra in extravert and enjoy giving my time freely to others; by contrast, an introvert may want to devote more time to themselves, or a parent to their children. The dominant narrative would have us sacrificing things that enrich our lives in order to allocate these resources to a romantic partner as a demonstration of our love. But love shouldn’t require you to suffer. Healthy relationships lead you to feel fulfilled, not stifled.

Divvying up finite resources can be a challenge. Obviously, multiple non-platonic relationships present unique challenges. It’s natural to want to commit much of your time, energy, and/or money to each of them. Sometimes this division will come easily, other times it may stretch you so thin that you snap. Ask me how I know!

Time is the resource I struggle with the most. When I have people in my life I enjoy giving time to, I do so without stopping to think if I should or even can. Spending time with people literally fills my cup but I need me time now and then. I used to book myself solid months in advance, but would grow frustrated at the complete lack of time and flexibility for me. Since the pandemic forced me into a more relaxed social schedule, I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for time spent playing narrative-rich video games, doing side projects for work, riding my motorcycles, catching up on miscellaneous household projects, and much more. I’d let much of that slip over the years and the pandemic actually helped me realize that. As restrictions have loosened, I’ve done a solid job of keeping my schedule a touch lighter.

At one point in my life, hardly a day went by when I didn’t spend most of it with at least one of my two very enmeshed partners. While I loved my time with them, I resisted carving out time for myself because I felt obligated (personal and social pressure) to give them whatever I had to give. Change doesn’t happen overnight, but eventually with their encouragement and my recognition of my own struggles with codependency, I grew more comfortable doing just that.

Money is another finite resource that can get tricky. Some people have none while others have more than they could spend in one hundred lifetimes. Like many of you, I had a partner with whom I shared finances and assets. As we developed other relationships the need to have our finances separate grew. We found a method that worked well for us: a monthly allowance from our pooled funds combined with anything above and beyond that coming from our individual accounts. Eventually we separated our finances completely. Whether you’re working on de-tangling finances after decades or discussing who pays for dinner on a first date, a direct conversation with your partner is always a best practice.

Energy is perhaps the most difficult resource of all. In a world that idolizes self-sufficiency at all costs, we often find ourselves running low. The more enmeshed relationships you have in your life, the more energy you’re prone to spending. People have a tendency to put so much of themselves into relationships where they don’t get much back largely because of the romanticization of self-sacrifice in relationships. We can’t pour from an empty cup; make sure that you’re replenishing yours in ways that work for you. For instance, I find it important to find relationships that have a relatively even exchange. I’m a giver by nature. And if a new relationship doesn’t give back at a level that feels good to me? I’m going to modify my effort to a level that feels more equitable. It doesn’t need to be the same level, just one that feels more equitable to me.

Personal agency is paramount in finding a good balance to your finite resource allocation and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer. Having a solid grasp on your wants and needs as well as the courage to advocate for yourself is also important. Understand that they can and likely will change over time. Trust your partners to handle changes in your wants and needs like adults. Whether you’re talking about time, money, or energy, budgeting is in your best interest . . . we all have a finite amount of each.

Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was polyamorous in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

When It’s Complosion, Not Compersion

** New Word Alert! Complosion: when you want to feel happy that your partner is experiencing something with someone else they are involved with, but it all blows up in your psyche instead. [see: opposite of compersion] **

. . . Yes, I 100% made that word up . . .

One of my most dramatic struggles is the attempted reconciling of my charitable, emotionally-mature, logic-brain with my resentful, decidedly petty, inner-toddler. When I watch the folks my partners date walk unharmed down the same path I got banged up on, I want to hike up my diaper and burn everything down. I know I’m just experiencing sadness for my past self, but the resentful toddler I apparently harbor doesn’t have a past self; it just has a Mad Now self.

I wrote about this a bit last fall, but it still comes up for me now and then.

My grief always manifests as anger, which is not the version of myself I like best. It’s not even second-best. It’s basically last and I really wish it wasn’t so easily accessible! I am mad about that, too.

There are complicated layers to this struggle:

  • I’m legitimately mad, which makes calming myself down difficult
  • I am mad about a situation where no one is doing anything wrong, but it reminds me of when they did – so I’m mad at myself for the inherent unFAIRness of this anger
  • The person I’m mad at is happy (goddammit) and they deserve to be
  • I don’t want anyone else to suffer, and in that there is some solace because that means I’m not an asshole (at least in that arena)
  • I want to go back in time and un-hurt myself, which of course cannot be done, and that pisses me off too 
  • It is beyond embarrassing to admit I’ve made zero progress on this issue in the past several years, so I’m mad at myself for that as well
  • It feels wholly disconcerting to throw a tantrum inside of your own body . . . 

It is as if my toddler-psyche sustained bruises that never quite healed, and when I run into the same hard thing over and over it stings just as bad as the first time but also maybe a little extra, because I was sore there to begin with. 

I’m not sure what works best for healing up those spots or if they will always hurt a bit. I’m sure the key to that lies in how one would handle an actual toddler, but the one handling said toddler really has to be the grown up steering said logic-brain. Which is to say, also me. 

“Now, now . . . is it really that bad?” 

No, it’s not. And I know it’s not. It’s a bruise I bumped again, but I am familiar with its shape. I know what causes the pain and I know it fades away again given a little time. This too, shall pass. I know all that. 

In the interim, it helps to simply admit that I am a little sparse in this area of my toolbox, because if you are too then we are not alone. And I believe there is strength in numbers. 

SO WE CAN ALL GET TOGETHER AND BURN THIS SHIT DOWN – just kidding . . . kinda ❤️


Photo by Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Forgiving Yourself in Relationships

Folks navigating relationships in a monoamorous framework benefit from a wealth of resources related to their journey. In non-monogamy we’re often left using a trial-and-error model to teach ourselves what works and what doesn’t. Understandably, we mess up a lot before we figure things out.

I promise you I am no exception to this rule. 

I know occasional failures are par for the course when existing outside the dominant narrative, but I still beat myself up for it from time to time. Wanting to be a different version of myself and watching myself not show up that way is hard. Some solace is available when I look back at who I was years ago and see how far I’ve come, but I still struggle with the idea that I am not perfect . . . and don’t get me started on the fact that I’ll never be!

I aspire to always show up as the version of myself I hope to someday be, but sometimes I forget she exists until it’s too late. Alas, I am human. I have a therapist (10/10 recommend), I only keep supportive people in my life (yes, boundaries, omg you need them), and I resolve to do better each and every time I mess up. These things help me forgive myself for the times I do slip up, because if I wasn’t able to do that, I wouldn’t be able to move on.

And this is a critical piece of the puzzle when it comes to working on being the best version of you: forgiving yourself for not having always been that way. Even yesterday, or maybe this morning.

If you read this blog with any regularity, you are made aware of my shortcomings about a month after I become aware of them. When I speak to groups, I find catharsis in admitting where I’ve gone wrong in front of people who nod their heads in understanding because they, too, have fucked up in that particular way. I enjoy sharing what a terrible partner I am on platforms like this blog, because it feels a bit like atonement once I’ve moved past a thing and learned from it. I highly recommend sharing your seemingly shameful moments with those in our community who are also walking this path – they are there to love you through it, and commiserate. 

I’m a big believer in the universe providing second chances when our hearts are in the right place. Don’t spend too much time in a haze of self-loathing before you allow yourself to make amends and move on. Once you decide to do better next time, you will get a do-over, I promise. It might not be with the same person (or people), and it may not come with the same risks or rewards, but you will get another opportunity to show up differently, and that is a gift. Count on it.

Relationships are hard enough when the way you structure them is a well worn path through the society you live in. When you’re left to forge your own, you have to allow for some mis-steps. None of us is going to get through our time on this planet without fucking some stuff up; the human condition assures it. You can practice acceptance of this or deny you’re affected, but only one of those options allows you to learn and grow.

Refining Personal Boundaries

I came to a difficult realization recently: a boundary I thought I had was not, in fact, a boundary. You see I had what I thought was a solid set of limits around a particular safety issue. I stated them and they were accepted, but when it came time for me to enforce them, I faltered. Not because I was coerced or manipulated or otherwise challenged – I simply realized that if it came down to this set of limits forcing a difficult decision on my part, I wasn’t going to make it . . . and that was not a boundary, it was a want I was scared I wouldn’t find agreement on, so I issued an ultimatum to ensure I would.

My actual boundary was just a touch outside of my stated boundary, but enough outside to warrant a mea culpa.

I will tell you I had to swallow a pretty big lump of pride in order to make the resulting phone call that revoked the “boundary” before anyone had to make any big decisions on their end. And while I’m grateful I realized my mistake prior to it causing harm, it led me to examine a number of boundaries I consider myself in possession of.

If you bring up the topic of boundaries in a group of two or more people, you’ll get just as many explanations of what a boundary is in relation to a rule, or an agreement. Here’s my take:

  • A boundary is an edict you have for your own behavior as a result of your individual limits
  • A rule is an edict you attempt to levy against another in order to dictate their behavior
  • Most rules can be reframed as boundaries, but the transfer of labor to the person who has the boundary makes rules a lot more attractive if you can get someone to agree to them!

Some folks find the following example helpful:

  • Boundary: I will not be connected on social media to someone who is out about being polyamorous because anyone who sees my connection to them might surmise that I, too, am polyamorous and that is a hard limit for me
  • Rule: my partners are not allowed to indicate on social media that they are polyamorous because folks might assume the same about me since we are connected
  • Rule reframed as a boundary: if my partners choose to be out on social media about being polyamorous, I will remove our visible connections on that platform in order to keep myself safe

TL;DR – boundaries keep you safe and are solely under your control; rules transfer the responsibility for keeping you safe onto others

So why wasn’t my set of limitations a true boundary? I certainly formulated it to keep myself safe, it wasn’t challenged by anyone, and I was entirely able to enforce it by making a difficult decision . . . but I wasn’t willing to, and that’s the difference. If you aren’t willing to enforce your stated boundaries, then that’s not what they are. And that’s an important thing to know about yourself.

I don’t believe in rules for relationships. I believe that relationships find their balance in an environment where individuals are allowed to show up as they please and compatibility isn’t manipulated by a set of commandments each individual must adhere to. This doesn’t mean folks shouldn’t be nice to one another or not take each other into consideration, but it does mean that I don’t expect my partners not to do a thing just because I wish they wouldn’t. Not even if I really, really wish they wouldn’t. If it’s a safety issue for me, I can have a boundary, but that becomes my responsibility to follow through on. 

Boundaries can be really difficult to enforce, so just because you feel like you’d struggle to follow through doesn’t mean it’s not a true boundary, it just means there is a lot at stake for you. That’s okay. Over the years I’ve had to hold firm and process a fuck ton of  grief when my boundaries meant I had to walk away from people I did not want to leave. I also have experience with giving folks second chances when the boundary crossing occurred in a moment of weakness and the other individual acknowledged their role and resolved to do better. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have a true boundary; it meant I was willing to give someone close to me another chance to show up well in our relationship. 

My boundaries keep me safe, because that’s what they’re designed to do. 

What I learned about my boundaries in this most recent situation is that I’m better off if I view them as dealbreakers. My relationships are the deals I make with individuals for us to be together in some capacity, and my boundaries are not secrets. My boundaries need to be the things I absolutely will not accept in my life, and nothing more. 

And that means I have to ask for the other things I want, and risk hearing a “no” in response. Uuuuuggghhhh . . . why can’t everyone just be scared to lose me and do everything I want instead? That would be GREAT!  

Okay no, that’s awful – but take a look at what you may have floating out there as a “boundary” and ask yourself if perhaps you’re just counting on that very thing being true to keep someone else from doing a thing you simply don’t want them to do. And if you think there might be something like that in your relationship? Well, maybe just look at it. You might come to the conclusion that you don’t need it to exist as a stated dealbreaker, because really it’s just a want, and wants are okay to have.

Photo by Kev Seto on Unsplash

What Does “Normal” Look Like in Non-Monogamy?

Normal. There’s a loaded word if ever there was one . . . 

Our sense of normal comes from what we see every day. It’s determined by what most folks do and find acceptable. By their actions, words, values, and judgements. Normal is what you are conditioned to expect, and when it doesn’t manifest there are feelings to deal with – mostly negative ones.

Once upon a time I thought it was normal to settle down with a member of another gender, have lots of babies, and live happily ever after. Like most of us eventually do, I discovered that “happily ever after” was not a guarantee, or even a reasonable expectation. It was a misrepresentation of normalcy, and the price for deviations from that were paid for with shame and self-loathing. The reality is: most relationships end, and ALL of them have problems. We can add it to the list along with death, and taxes.  If only *that* were part of the dominant narrative . . .

In the absence of an authentic roadmap for relationships, most of us turn to groups of friends, a therapist, or support groups. But those are mostly doing so in a monogamous framework that validates their feelings about things not lining up with the dominant narrative. So what about those of us who already reject that? What do we look to as normal? How do we know we’re okay?

Oh man, I have been wrestling with this for about a year . . . let me tell you.

There is a phenomenon that happens in non monogamy. Folks open up a pre-existing monogamous partnership and baby step their way to full autonomy over the course of some years. Meanwhile, they place limitations on their new relationships because that shit is SCARY, okay? So this artificial limitation happens, but gradually it eases, and eventually most folks become comfortable with the idea that their partners aren’t going to leave them in a bout of wild NRE. But those new relationships forced to grow in a limited environment? Well, that will always be the foundation they were built on, and it can be very disconcerting to watch a partner experience freedom with new partners when they had to limit themselves with you. That’s not a thing anyone really talks about when they discuss how to protect their Original Relationship: the fallout that occurs when you build another long term situation with someone new and you don’t allow for the same opportunities to experience joy with you as someone else got to.

Or at least, that’s how I saw it. 

I was the partner whose relationship was artificially limited in the beginning but who later watched that same partner date, and even fall in love, with full autonomy. Readers, I grieved the loss of what never was for us HARD. Every time a new person got to experience new milestones unencumbered, I could only focus on how I had been made small in the same circumstances. It ate me from the inside and I did not expect to ever move past it.

But you know what? This is . . . normal. Just because it sucks, doesn’t mean it’s not normal. It doesn’t mean that a ton of folks haven’t worked through the same things. And there is actually a bright side, but I’ll come back to that.

More recently I am nearing a huge relationship milestone with someone I consider a life partner. We are moving in together, a thing we’ve talked about wanting to do since before our first anniversary. For years we saw ourselves living in a shared home with their other partner in a V configuration. My meta and I had, (and still do), a wonderfully close friendship, and it looked like a real possibility. That didn’t turn out to be the way we would eventually live together, and in fact this transition is a mostly negative one for my partner. I found myself experiencing profound sadness that this is such a happy milestone for me, and that I cannot expect him to experience the same happiness given the circumstances.

But it occurred to me that this, too, is normal.

It is normal in non monogamy to experience complicated layers at every turn. To taste the bittersweet reality and be unable to pretend it is only sweet in the way that monogamous configurations often take for granted (authentic or imagined). There is no denying that the original plan did not manifest, or that there is not more sadness in that for one of us than the other. I am gaining a nesting partner after nearly a decade of living as a solo parent, but my partner is grieving the loss of a life he’d believed in. And that, too, is normal.

Normal, in non monogamy, is coming out to your family and being asked not to bring “other” partners to family holidays, or to at least not tell your grandparents.

Normal, in non monogamy, is worrying that loving more than one person will cost you your job, your kids, or your life partner.

Normal, in non monogamy, is wondering all the time if you’re doing this wrong because there are no concrete answers or “professionals” or spiritual guides . . . and it seems like someone is always upset about something.

Normal, in non monogamy, is growing a steel backbone to deal with the pressure of toxic monogamous ideology as it creeps into your psyche and tries to tell you’re an asshole.

Normal, in non monogamy, is celebrating different things. It probably won’t be marriage, kids, and a white picket fence in the majority of your relationships – and you have to relearn what success looks like. Because success is just whatever works for the folks involved and brings them happiness along the way.

So back to that bright side I promised you, yeah?

I indeed allowed myself to feel envy and process grief regarding things I wish had been different, but I also know this: relationships that require effort on the part of the individuals building them will have a broader foundation than those built on relative ease. By the time we’d reached our one year anniversary, I already knew he was in this for the long haul because of how difficult some moments had been for us.

And, I know that living together will be the same; I get to be happy that we are moving forward, and I get to love him through the grief he’s feeling without requiring he be happy in the same way I am. Because this is our normal. It’s a mixed bag, but reliably so. This is just another hard won addition to what we’re both still choosing to show up in.

It will be what it’s supposed to be, just like every other normal thing.

Photo by Jonas Denil on Unsplash

Friends With My Exes

Not long ago, I connected with a guy on a dating app who laughed when I mentioned I retain most of my former partners as friends. He made it a point to let me know that he was certainly not friends with any of his former partners. I almost unmatched him on the spot! Instead, I explained that I really prefer to transition relationships rather than end them, and that I don’t tend to date folks who’d require that I cut them out of my life for any reason. I’m a nice person; I date nice people.

I haven’t heard back from him.

One of the questions I commonly get from folks who learn this fact about me is some form of “how in the word do you negotiate friendship with former partners?” and the answer to that is fairly simple: I lay the groundwork up front. And I do that by simply bringing up the fact that my expectation is that my relationships remain intentional connections for as long as they make sense, regardless of the configuration. I guess you could say it’s a self fulfilling prophecy.

Here is a list of reasons I’ve terminated the romantic portion of a variety of relationships:

  • Substance abuse
  • Unchecked jealousy 
  • An unwillingness to communicate needs
  • Geographical distance
  • Lack of chemistry

Here is a list of reasons other folks have terminated romantic connections with me:

  • Serial monogamy
  • Quarantine (thanks, Covid-19)
  • Lack of chemistry

At the time of this writing, I remained friends with every single person on those lists. I can’t imagine cutting anyone I’ve ever loved completely out of my life unless they were maliciously harmful to me or others I care for. 

It’s a red flag for me when someone is not inclined to maintain relationships with their former lovers. It certainly doesn’t bode well for us, considering that most romantic/sexual relationships end. 

I suppose one of the things I really appreciate about non-monogamy, and more so Relationship Anarchy, is just the freedom to have the kind of relationships with folks that make sense for us. I don’t need to have any of them be a certain shape or check a certain number of boxes. I can have a partner I see once every few months with little to no contact in between, and have that work for us. Wonder that! I love it.

I also work hard to honor the hearts of the folks I connect with by being transparent about my feelings for them out of respect. I would never want anyone to spend time with me that they were not authentically enthusiastic about, so I don’t foster inauthenticity by showing up in my relationships only out of obligation. I am there because I want to be, and when I don’t, I say so. I also encourage my people to come and go without struggle. Anything less is codependence and leads to resentment. It has not been an easy road to becoming a person who can hear difficult things with grace, and I am not perfect by any means, but once I understood that this was how I wanted to be treated by others, I began to show up that way more ease.

My romantic connections are inherently fluid and entirely dependent on whether or not the circumstances are conducive to maintaining those feelings. Sometimes I’ll feel that way about a person for a few months; sometimes it feels like it will be a lifetime. I appreciate not having to blow up my connections every time it doesn’t turn into a lifetime affair. Instead, I get to maintain friendships with people who’ve known me in very intimate moments and seen me in ways others won’t. I see myself as lucky to still have them in my life, and I hope they feel the same about me!

Image: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

Words and Actions

Recently I encountered a meme urging folks to fall in love with a person’s actions instead of their words. One’s actions, of course, speaking louder or being more indicative of a person’s character and intent. The person sharing the quip remarked that they loved words, and that words are often themselves an action. 

In my opinion, words can be precarious… in the study of sociolinguistics there are speech acts, intent, and impact. The ways in which these play against each other in discourse are what give words their power. In guess-culture environments where plausible deniability is wielded to defend passive aggressive statements against confrontation, many of us grow distrustful of words at face value

When the negative impact of someone’s words doesn’t match their stated, positive intent, it can be tempting to wonder if they actually meant to hurt you. As you can imagine, asking for confirmation of that generally doesn’t lead anywhere good.

The individual experience of processing the meaning of words yields another opportunity for things to go badly. I can say “I will always love you” but someone might hear “I will never leave you” because to them, that’s what loving someone forever means. When I leave I am a liar, even if I still love them. 

Words not matching actions are often this misalignment of understanding. In relationships of all kinds, bringing clarity to a situation with language is beneficial, but when someone’s understanding of your agreements is at stake, it’s critical.

One time on an anniversary trip, a partner asked if I minded them making a quick call at some point to a recent romantic interest. I said I did not, but in my mind, “quick” meant 5-10 minutes, and “at some point” meant while I was otherwise occupied. Unfortunately, “quick” meant a half hour and “at some point” meant right before bed our first night in a new city. I did not handle it well. When they returned to the room, I lost my shit and it all but ruined the rest of our time together. To be honest, I still have feelings of anger about it – but those are with myself for not ensuring I understood what they meant. 

To me, their actions did not match their words, nor did they fit into my unspoken expectations for their behavior. However, my partner did exactly what they said they were going to do, and I had said it wasn’t a problem. 

I learned a very valuable lesson: make sure the definitions of the words being used are understood by both parties to be the same. Failing to do this has caused friction numerous times in my relationships, and I’m really only beginning to do a consistent job of asking for clarification when I know a misunderstanding could lead to a negative outcome.

There are plenty of times when it doesn’t matter, right? If someone says they’ll check out a book I’ve recommended to them, I don’t need to know when they plan to do that or if they ever did. But recently, due to my current standards of risk exposure during quarantine, a partner I still have contact with asked me if I was comfortable with someone stopping by briefly to say hi if they met outside at a distance and wore masks. I responded that I didn’t think that was a problem, no – then I remembered the phone call. I returned to the conversation to ask what they meant by “briefly” and was told anywhere from 5 minutes to an hour. Briefly to me had meant around 5 minutes, but again, I was projecting. Had I not gotten that clarification, our ability to spend time together during quarantine would have been compromised. 

The truth is that as a writer, I do love words. Comforting, incendiary, inspiring, and sharp; the power they have is a wonder. I’m not always in love with their complexity, or the labor involved in second guessing them. I have learned not to imbue them with power that is not inherent, and I try not to fall in love with them until I know what they mean.

Photo by Raphael Schaller on Unsplash

Feelings Are Not Facts

Hey, how are you all? I’m okay . . . mostly. This is a strange time, yeah? 

If you struggle here and there with anxiety, wrestle with the old ghosts of a traumatic past, or are simply human, you may have noticed your threshold for spiraling into your feelings is a little lower these days. Like, super low. Maybe it’s a little washed out? Could just be me.

On the off chance you’re anything like me and you’ve found yourself gazing into your Crystal Ball of Doom™ a little too often, I wanted to acknowledge a couple things:

  1. If you are isolated with someone you love, it’s normal to feel a strain there
  2. If you are isolated away from someone you love, it’s normal to feel a strain there

People . . . we are all dealing with a lot of crap right now.

One of the things I know to be true about myself is that when I am feeling strain in one area of my life, it tends to bleed a bit into others. I am not always cognizant of it at the moment, which makes it particularly insidious, so it ends up coming out sideways. Like when I’m hungry and I bang my head on something and burst into tears; I’m crying because I’m hungry, not because I hit my head. Hitting my head was just the proverbial straw that broke my hungry camel’s back. Likewise, when I’m lonely, (or isolated or bored or I ate too many baked goods and my tummy hurts), and someone I love very much does a totally normal thing that perhaps I would ordinarily just let go but in this moment of isolated-tummy-ache-boredom signifies the end of the actual world, that’s my crap coming out sideways.

Uncertainty is not my friend. In today’s world, it has overstayed its welcome. I’m crabby. But while that’s true for so many of us, we can consider the awareness of it a tool of sorts. Because if I know I’m under strain, I also know I’m prone to letting that bleed into areas it doesn’t belong, and knowledge is power.

So I am armed with this knowledge, yes? The knowledge that I am emotionally overextended due to an undercurrent of uncertainty, (strain, crabbiness, tummy aches, what-have-you). I am also armed with the knowledge that awareness of a situation or a feeling is not enough to act on, and that in order for me to be the best version of myself, I need to spend time accepting the situation (or the feeling) so that I can be objective about what to do about it.

This morning I fed the cats. Then my partner came along and let me know he wanted to wash the cat food dish with the morning dishes, so he dumped the cat food back into its box to wash the bowl before filling it back up again to feed them. Ordinarily this would have been an “okay, dude – whatever floats your particular boat” moment – but no, not today. You see, the world is a strange place, so putting the cat food back in its container meant my partner no longer wanted to spend time with me. DON’T LAUGH, I’M BEING VULNERABLE!! But I also knew my Crystal Ball of Doom™ was responsible for that extrapolation, (powerful magic in that thing . . .), so I went into the other room to be with myself for a moment. In the end there wasn’t anything left to feel bothered about. 

In this time of increased uncertainty, when I find myself compelled to react to things in a way I am aware is out of proportion to the situation, I know to take a moment to figure out where it’s really coming from before losing my shit. Because when I pause, I can remind myself that it’s just a really weird time right now, and the dumbest stuff is going to feel bad in ways it usually wouldn’t. Sometimes I end up crying anyway, but at least I’m better equipped to not cause harm by acting out of misdirected feelings surfacing only due to the proverbial straw.

Blaming the straw is never wise. 

Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

Parallel Polyamory Sans Privilege

There are those who prefer little-to-no interaction with metamours, opting instead for what is known as parallel polyamory: a structuring of relationships in such a way that folks know of each other, but metamours don’t spend intentional time with one another. Parallel polyamory can look like anything from: “we can be in the same room, we just don’t care to interact outside of a polite ‘hello’ ” to: “I don’t want to know anything about your time with so-and-so because I just can’t stand them and I never want to see them.”

Sometimes our partners pick partners we simply don’t mesh with! As long as everyone can be civil, it stands to reason that no one needs to be excluded from anything. But there are situations in which that simply won’t work for one party or another.

This becomes sticky terrain when parallel polyamory is implemented in a long-term, heavily enmeshed relationship. 

My approach to partner mingling is this: invite everyone, and let whoever does not wish to interact, opt out. And yes, this means I will have partners who occupy little space in my life as a result, but that is their choice and I respect it. I could never in good conscience limit any of my partners’ opportunities to share life with me based on the preferences of someone else. I could also never require that my partners interact with each other if they do not want to. This approach also means I will likely be in future situations where I have to choose between sharing space with metamours I don’t particularly like, or skipping whatever event they will be showing up at. As long as I’m not making my partner pick between us, that’s all that matters to me.

Couple privilege in nonmonogamous relationships is something to actively be work against if you wish to mitigate its harmful effects on others, as with any inherent privilege. To do this in the case of parallel polyamory, it becomes necessary to view your desire, (or the desire of your partner), as a set of personal boundaries you, (or they), are responsible for.

To frame parallel polyamory as a set of boundaries, the person desiring the parallel situation would also need to accept that they will participate in less of the mutual partner’s life than would otherwise be available. It would be a leveraging of privilege to suggest that a partner exclude their other partners from important life events simply because one didn’t want to interact with them; it is an enforcement of a personal boundary to opt out of situations that result in an undesirable situation for you. 

I understand the implications here, but consider the alternative: insisting that no other partners ever get to participate in these important life events simply because you don’t want to interact with them means their relationship with your mutual partner is prescriptively limited and will not have an opportunity to grow into the shape it would naturally.

A special note to those of you who find yourself in toxic or abusive situations with a metamour: If your metamour is abusive to you, you of course have every right to distance yourself from them. In these cases, while it may be one of the most difficult high roads you’ll ever take, it still behooves all involved to focus on your boundaries rather than insisting your partner do anything different in their other relationships. If you had a close friend who chose to spend a ton of time with a complete asshole, your relationship with that friend would likely change – at least until they stopped being so intertwined with a jackass. When it’s your partner, and you share a life together, restructuring your relationship enough to keep you safe is exponentially harder to do. Ultimately, an abusive metamour can shine a light on your partner’s disregard for your safety and wellbeing, and that should be considered a fundamental incompatibility.

I’m a big fan of walking away from misery. It’s always worth the journey.

Photo by Ivan Aleksic on Unsplash