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

Happy Polydays!

Forgive me for the play on words. It couldn’t be helped. ‘Tis the season!

It’s a sentimental time. The observation of traditions, time off work, exchanging of gifts, sharing food and space, and a connection to something larger than ourselves – whether that be God, or family, or love, or stringing more than two days together without having to go to work. All reverence is valid.

Thanksgiving is happening in a few days in the U.S., and a sizeable list of religious holidays fill the calendar between that and New Years. Many of us choose to spend this time with relatives, but a growing number of us prioritize chosen family as well – whether that means including friends who are far from family in our family’s celebrations, or hosting a gathering where all are welcome. But this can pose challenges for those in non-monogamous relationships when it feels desirable to include everyone who’s important to you, but logistics or secrets or judgements mean the holidays fall short of a Polycule Postcard Wonderland.

I’m branching out and attending Thanksgiving at my boyfriend’s home that he shares with his wife (my dear friend) this year. She’s having me over the day prior to help cook and prepare, which goes a long way towards making me feel like I belong. Most of my kids are coming, and I’ll be meeting some of their family members as The Girlfriend for the first time. Needless to say, I have all the feels.

Love may not be finite, but time certainly is – and while concessions and allocations seem to flow pretty smoothly in general when you get the hang of it, premium time like holidays has the potential to stir up some hurt feelings and leave at least a couple people in a less-than-ideal position.

It can feel patently unfair when you know your grandparents would accept your orphan co-worker at the dinner table before they’d accept your second husband. Or you’re torn between attending your girlfriend’s holiday dinner and your in-laws’ as they happen to be at the exact same time. Or none of your partners reached out to include you in their planned gatherings.

I have some suggestions, of course, because what would be the point of a sad blog that ended there? I want us all to look out for each other! So, here is a very short list of things to consider, discuss, and/or implement:

  • Take stock of what’s most important to each individual, and speak your truth to that end: if you have this conversation with each person, you’ll find that what they truly value makes it possible to cover a lot of bases. Perhaps you have a partner who really wants to spend a special evening with just you opening presents, and another who’s got their heart set on a traditional Christmas morning. For some, specific dates might have significance while for others “something in the ballpark” works fine. In most cases, there’s room for everyone to find happiness. Don’t assume; have the conversation. If no one’s initiating it, do it yourself.
  • Let go of what you’ve always done: the idea that you and your longest-term partner need to always spend Christmas eve with one set of parents and Christmas day with the other doesn’t leave a lot of room for the celebrations likely happening on the same days for other partners who are important to you. Be open to doing things differently. If your holidays are non-negotiable, they might not be in the spirit of the holiday itself. Try alternating years, scheduling at different times of day, or hosting everyone yourselves.
  • Advocate for the people you love, including yourself: while many of us have families who are aware of our multiple relationships, they may not value all of them in the same way we do. Just as we’ve had to unlearn some of what society has fed us in terms of mononormativity, we need to share with others who don’t have the same incentives to change. It is important to be active and intentional in reinforcing the value of our bonds with those who might devalue them out of hand. And if your family doesn’t know? Take the time to listen to partners who are affected by that and examine what you’re gaining in exchange for that experience.
  • Build new traditions with supportive people: as simple as a day to make lefse with the whole polycule, or a Hanukkah sledding excursion, or a themed ornament exchange. Some years we gather up friends to see Christmas lights – some years it’s cookie baking and board games. Surround yourself with those who value the way you live and build on that happiness.

To me, the most important thing is sharing the moments I cherish with the people I love the most. I have attachments to specific dates, but I’m starting to discover that’s not always what I value most; I am perfectly okay with actual dates sometimes and “ballpark” for the rest. Realizing that was huge for me! Often times these moments I cherish feel as though they’re supposed to follow a script. When I remember where that script came from, I find it easier to deviate from.

And there is one last thing I learned a long time ago I find to be of particular importance around the holidays: don’t participate in things that don’t make you happy. If your heart hurts when it should be otherwise, do something else. I have never regretted wanting better for myself and acting on it.

Happy Holidays, poly peeps! I hope they are amazing and fun and filled with lots of love.

When to Disclose

When do I tell someone I’m interested in that I’m polyamorous?

I see this question posed a lot in online forums when the topic of dating is up for discussion. My answer is very simple: first thing.

I’m on one or two online dating sites, and my status as a non-monogamous person is very clearly referenced not only in the body of my profile, but also in any filtering criteria I’m allowed. When someone new expresses interest in me and I see potential there, my first message always includes a query regarding their awareness of me being polyamorous and if so, if they know what that means.

From what I’ve observed in the non-monogamous community I have access to, there are a large number of people who defer disclosing this information about themselves until after they’ve met a potential partner in person, claiming that being up front about being non-monogamous scares away too many people.

Well . . . sucks for them, but guess what? That’s not ethical.

As much as I would love to live in a society in which monoamory, polyamory, and the 537 shades of “open” in between were each as normalized as the other, I do not. I don’t owe anyone my measurements or my GPA or my profession or my star sign, but I do owe them the courtesy of not wasting their time and possible emotional investment in something that’s never going to be on the table for them: namely, a relationship with someone who will never be limited by anyone else in the number of romantic partners she has.

I think back to when my boyfriend and I were first chatting. I met him in person without his wife and he was very forthcoming about being married. That evening we struck up a non-stop conversation online that continued for weeks. To be quite honest, I started to fall for him immediately – and if he had been of the mind that disclosing his relationship status or polyamorous nature to me was going to ruin his chances, and I were someone for whom monogamy was the only option, I could have been hurt. Emotional investment happens on a different timeline for everyone, and if we can’t respect that, we have no business being out there accepting these interactions.

But it’s really more awful than just that . . .

If you say you’re inclined to wait until someone is invested in you to disclose what is in most cases a deal breaker in our society, then what you’re really saying is that you see emotional manipulation as a valid tool in your relationships. Newsflash: That makes you a bad person, and a terrible partner.

The moment you know you’re interested in pursuing a connection with someone, you are bound by ethics to disclose your non-monogamy to the object of your affection. I’m not going to get into when you should be telling your other partners about this new person – we all have different agreements there, and they may even vary from one partner to the next – but I am unwavering on this edict: You cannot claim to practice ethical non-monogamy and enter into an exchange with the intent to deceive in order to secure another person’s connection to you. The two are mutually exclusive.

That’s all I have to say about that.

 

Desperately Seeking Normal

One of the reasons I write this blog is to contribute in whatever small way I can to the normalization of polyamory. I want the way I love to not be weird to people. It feels normal to me, but at times I’m struck by how my treatment of it as normal is seen as aggressive by others.

If I talk about my girlfriend and my boyfriend, I’m “talking about poly” when really, I’m just talking about relationships . . . as you do. My ups and downs just look a little different sometimes.

If I use words that are specific to polyamory, I’m “talking about poly” when really I’m using words that make the most sense in my life. People “talk about mono” all day all night, but it’s not notable because that’s all anyone sees unless someone like me makes a point of being visible.

Being visible is how shit gets normalized.

I get that when something outside the scope of normal gets brought up over and over again it can feel like saturation or promotion. But what are my options? Do I pretend that I have only one partner? Do I pretend we’re monoamorous? Of course not.

No one needs me to pretend to be anyone other than myself because nothing I’m doing in my relationships affects anyone who isn’t in them, regardless of whether or not they think it does.

So why is normalizing polyamory important?

Because anytime people are allowed to be themselves, they flourish.

You cannot tell I’m polyamorous to look at me. The assumption is that I’m not. That is how our society views relationships and anything outside of that is taboo or unethical. I mean, there are plenty of unethical relationships happening in and outside of monoamory, but poly is not inherently so. It’s not even mostly so.

I have encountered more people claiming to be mono and lying about it than I have encountered those who are poly. Mono relationships don’t have a monopoly on ethics, by any stretch. In fact, I believe that if poly were more acceptable in mainstream society, we would see far more ethical behavior with stigma eroded in favor of honesty.

But there is no path to that without normalization.

And there is no path to normalization without visibility.

And there is no visibility without talking about it . . . so you will have to forgive me for insisting on being visible. If you don’t see me for who I am and give me an opportunity to show you I’m perfectly normal, ethical, happy, and healthy, then I won’t be able to hope that someday I won’t have to be a secret in certain situations.