Polyamory: the beginning of a hundred new exciting ways to screw up

So one of the problems with blogging is that sometimes there’s not much going on, so there’s nothing to write about, but then other times all sorts of exciting things are happening, so you’re way too busy to sit down and write something. This is particularly a problem if you’re like me, and a bit of a perfectionist, agonisingly conscious of writing  something vaguely interesting, while at the same time attempting to keep confidential details confidential, and not reveal too much. The results? I’ve been trying to think of a way to write this post since round about October, and failing miserably. Somehow the balance of ‘interesting to read’ and ‘being selective with information’ has been particularly hard with this. It may take a few attempts to get it right, so consider this take one. There will no doubt be a sequel.

I’ve managed to find myself in a polyamorous relationship, which is giving me countless opportunities to put what I’ve always thought in theory into practice. ((Classicist side-note: I have a real issue with the word ‘polyamory’. It’s half Latin, half Greek, and I hate words like that. The word also has a lot of history with people trying to define what ‘true polyamory’ looks like, which always sets off my bullshit detectors, but that’s the best description, so it’s the word I’m going to stick with.)) It’s been going on for over four months now, which is actually kinda significant, if not serious, especially in a university environment where a relationship that lasts more than eight weeks is considered long-term. And as this blog is about learning and exploration and basically just me throwing my thoughts into a void, it’s time to do some talking. I should also note that the title of this post is meant to be flippant, not negative. I don’t think poly relationships are any more likely to be screwed up than exclusive ones, only that now I get the chance to screw up in new ways, and that’s exciting and interesting in itself.

I’ve been in open relationships before, the kind where I was kinda seeing someone and they were also sleeping with other people. Sometimes I was sleeping with other people too, sometimes I wasn’t. This is different, because this time, I’m not the primary partner. My boyfriend (I am still getting comfortable calling him that) has been with his primary partner for something mad like ten years. They live together. She is and always will be his top priority. They’ve been poly for a couple of years, and are way better at all this than I am, and since meeting them, I’ve been introduced to the reality of a world I’d only ever seen through the distorting lens of the internet.

My past experience of open relationships hasn’t been all that positive. In retrospect, it was always pretty much an excuse to treat me like shit, intentionally or not. Salmacis, the girlfriend I met on the internet when I was fifteen, would state repeatedly that we were together, but made it clear that she was going to continue to sleep with at least a different girl every week, even though she knew that I was inexperienced and not seeing anyone else. (The one time I kissed another girl, she got intensely upset.) Alexander and I tried to be open for a year, but it pretty much turned into a competition as to who could go on more dates, thus proving that they cared the least. In the last year and half, the men I’ve  dated have all pretty much assumed that open means no commitment. If we’re not exclusive, that means there’s no real responsibility, and we can pretty much treat each other with as little respect as we choose.

This isn’t to say that I think any of these are bad people. I just think that they were bad relationships. Or at least, not the kind of relationships that I necessarily wanted at the time. I’ve tried to explain that, when I say I’d be happy to have a non-exclusive relationship with someone, that doesn’t necessarily mean without emotion. (If and when I want something utterly without emotion, I don’t call it a relationship, and even then, I have to at least like the person.)

So here is what I expect. If I have a partner, I expect them to be there for me when I’m stressed about work or when I’ve had a bad day or when one of my exes calls me to screw with my head. I have days when I come home and just want to cry, for whatever reason, and I expect my partner to be on the other end of a phone to comfort me. If we’re in the same city and it’s not massively inconvenient, there are times when I expect them to come to see me. I like to think that I would always try to do the same for them. And if things don’t go well and we have arguments and upset each other, I expect us to be able to talk about things and try to work out a solution, without resorting to the ‘well we’re not really dating so it doesn’t matter’ stance.

Being exclusive or non-exclusive doesn’t change any of that. The fact that my partner might be seeing other people should not give them a free pass to just ignore the parts of being in a relationship they don’t like. In an ideal world, I’d have a partner who loved and valued me and considered me their primary, with a relationship strong enough that we could see other people on the side, without either of us confusing ‘non-exclusive’ for ‘non-committed’.

Of course, what’s interesting about my current relationship is that I’m not the primary. My boyfriend has a long-term partner, and from what I’ve seen, that’s pretty much the dynamic they have. They love each other, and no amount of sex with other people is going to change that. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just an additional extra. But the strange thing is, I feel more secure in this relationship than I have in any other. The main restriction is time, followed by geography. He can’t drop everything to come to another city to see me when I have a difficult day, and the amount of time he can spend with me depends partly on her schedule. That said, he’ll make time to speak to me on the phone, to look after me if I’m upset, and to make sure I feel valued and special within the context of our relationship. When we have issues, we talk them through and work out compromises. And as for my side of it, while I know he has other people to look after him, I try to make sure he knows that I care too, from a hundred miles away. I don’t expect him to put me before her, but I know that, if there were a crisis, he’d make sure I was okay, and if my emotions aren’t the top priority, well, at least they are a priority.

In a strange way, I am being treated far better than when I was the primary in an ‘open relationship’ which was really just an excuse not to have a relationship at all. In some ways, I am being treated with more respect and understanding than in the one ‘real’ monogamous relationship I’ve had. And though it’s not going to last all that long and is very emphatically not ‘going anywhere’, I am very grateful to be experiencing something like this. It is still new and strange and I am learning a lot, and no doubt all my usual neuroses and insecurities are going to start crawling out of the woodwork before long. (They kinda already have, but I think I will save that for Polyamory Part II.) But as someone who has been told that I’m not secure and well-balanced enough to handle something like this, that I get too jealous and irrational, it’s beautifully refreshing to discover otherwise. I’m happy, I think, if temporarily, and that’s the strangest feeling of all.

((I am still trying to think of appropriate names for this couple. So far the best suggestion as been Cadmus and Harmonia, but I wonder if that’s a little dark….))