Polyamory, Relationships, Uncategorized

A while ago (egads, where *has* the summer gone??), I wrote a little bit about the relationship escalator as a model for looking at the way most of us construct our romantic attachments. One of the ways polyfolk often subvert the traditional romantic attachment narratives is with the advent of something called “solo poly”:

Solo polyamory is a fluid category that covers a range of relationships, from the youthful “free agent” or recent divorcee who might want to “settle down” some day but for now wants to play the field with casual, brief, no-strings-attached connections, to the seasoned “solo poly” who has deeply committed, intimate, and lasting relationships with one or more people. Some solo polys have relationships that they consider emotionally primary, but not primary in a logistical, rank, or rules-based sense, and others don’t want the kinds of expectations and limitations that come with a primary romantic/sexual relationship.
Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

As my parents’ generation less than respectfully looked at it, to them it was “playing the field”, a behaviour inherently and implicitly condoned in men but abhorred in women. Multiple SEXUAL partners, simultaneously rather than sequentially? Such women are SLUTS, and no-one would want to date That Kind Of Womam!! Turns out, my parents and their ilk were, thankfully, dead wrong on that account. (*whew*)

So what exactly is solo poly? In my case, it’s this part: “deeply committed, intimate, and lasting relationships with [simultaneously multiple] people.” I haven’t had a primary or hierarchical structure since my marriage ended, and with it, my need to secure my attachments to a set and predictable structure. Each of the relationships that are currently active is encouraged by its constituents to settle into its own level of involvement and investment, ranging from casual to very intensely emotionally-invested. In a lot of ways this looks a lot like relationship anarchy, and even I have to admit, I’m not entirely convinced that’s not what I have become in my old age.

“Solo polys can love deeply — being alone can mean that solo polys are deeply in touch with themselves. In many cases solo polys intend to remain “singleish” indefinitely because they are strongly motivated by autonomy, value their freedom, and identify primarily as individuals rather than as parts of a multi-person unity.” — Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CASA, CSE

One of the questions monogamous people always want to know about polyamoury is, “How the hell does it all work?” when the relationship escalator only provides one generic script, anything operating outside of that script is baffling. Even sometimes to those of us already (plausibly) off the escalator path, non-monogamy can be, quite frankly, baffling. One of the ways in which things get complicated, however, is the way in which we tend to project our expectations on relationships and relationship partners; in a poly structure, we may be getting involved with people who are not available to meet the expectations we’re bringing to the game. For most of my life, this was my particular downfall, time and time again. Romantic entanglement often follows our own internal scripts: we meet, we get swept up in NRE, everything is new and golden while we are in that happy, distracted state, and then things slowly start to settle in a more stable, sustainable, balancing act. In the escalator metaphor, this normally leads to talk of conjoined futures and committments and ritual ceremonies and milestones and such. In solo poly, we can still talk about futures, but the traditional milestones are *probably* going to be off the table. So how do we know we have committment if we’re not working in unity toward a sequence of such markers of social success?

Well, how be we just say, “I plan to be with you for a goodly long while,” then behave in congruence with that statement?

(Yes, I know. That should work just as well in monogamous culture, but sometimes there’s a reliance on the *rituals* to do the work of the individuals, so that the individuals don’t have to do any heavy lifting themselves. That’s one of the many places that the wheels come off the relational wagon, as it were.)

Divorce rates in the last 60 years have shown us that monogamous tradition is no guarantee of faithfulness and longevity. So relying on that narrowly-defined structure just doesn’t work for a lot of people any more. Eschewing the escalator doesn’t always mean being poly (solo or otherwise), but one of the things being solo poly DOES mean is that we can, if we choose, spread the needs of a long life over a broader table of options, without necessarily giving up a degree of independence and autonomy that we desire. I cannot begin to count the number of times friends and clients (and my own lips) have lamented feeling like “I have lost myself” at some point over the course of a relationship. It’s not that this doesn’t happen in polyamoury as well (relationships are relationships after all, and sometimes being poly just means we’re capable of making the same mistakes across MULTIPLE relationships simultaneously), but there’s often a very different, intimate system of checks and balances at work in a poly structure that, when the overall structure is healthy and secure, do an effective job of keeping any of its constituent members from getting too lost in something new and novel.

In healthy solo poly, each relationship tends to function best as separate and distinct attachments, even in situations where the SP is dating multiple members of another relational structure. We can look at the complexity of the system there, AND we can also look at the series of individual attachments; it’s a truism within poly circles that you can’t ACTUALLY date “a relationship”, because each member of that relationship is going to attach to you, and you to them, differently. The attachment lens makes it a little easier to view each relationship in its own uniqueness; yes, it means we’re doing relationship development and maintenance on multiple lines rather than on the singular line of a monogamous model, and it’s crucial to be aware of the impact and drain on time and emotional resources that can create. But the return on investment when it works is magnificent. (For comparison in the relationship escalator, think of how happy life is when your partnership, your kids, your professional colleagues, your best friend, and your family, are just all in sync and working well–how validating and peaceful is that?? When the give and take between all those factors *JUST WORKS* smoothly and meets all of your needs?)

The only difference in solo poly is that process is being created with multiple *intimate* partners at the same time. Why yes, that CAN be exhausting at high-demand times, but truthfully, it’s no different than juggling multiple demands from partner, kids, jobs, family members, community or volunteer obligations. Solo poly folks are every bit as responsible for working to find a balance that works for them as anyone else in any kind of relationship, including the delicate balance of tending to equate allotted time with emotional prioritization. At its core, solo poly’s relationship development and maintenance strategies don’t look any different from any other form of intimate relational development EXCEPT in terms of plurality.

It’s work at times, sure; but then again, what relationship worth having *isn’t*?

Polyamory, Relationships

I was hoping by now I’d have gotten through a review reading of Amy Gahran’s book, “Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator”, but life and a low-grade level of exhaustion are conspiring against me doing any serious reading of late. I’ve skimmed it, and as polyamoury in-print resources go, so far it looks like a reasonable companion to Veaux & Rickert’s “More than Two”. But even without the book, the metaphor is one I have been familiar with for a very long time (if I recall correctly, the term originated aeons ago with Franklin Veaux’s early poly writings), and using in my client work for as long as I’ve been working with clients exploring or living in non-monogamous relationship structures.

In essence, the relationship escalator metaphor illustrates our traditional-western-culture image of monogamy as a single linear progression of events:

meet => date => sexual bonding => fall in love => engagement => marriage => careers => kids => [umpteen years of monogamous togetherness] => retirement => death do us part

Obviously there are a multitude of variations on this theme, but the gist of it is the idea of that singular straight line from meeting through marriage to the ends of our lives. Just as obviously, this isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of relationship styles that we used to believe it was. We’ve been moving steadily into serial monogamy (sequential relationships) with the generally-increased acceptance of divorce and remarriage through the later decades of the 20th century. The rise of the left-and-right-swiping hookup culture made it very clear that commitment on the heels of sexual bonding isn’t even remotely required, and largely not even desired by many any more.

Some still find the current instantiation of the Sexual Revolution disconcerting; morally, many are still jealous of, or outraged by, the idea of their current partners having had lovers before they come along. While this might seem a little ridiculous for relationships forming as second or third marriages, for example, I can confirm that in couples counselling, partners will still struggle with “The Number”, especially if there is any kind of sexual disconnect in the current relationship. Sexual dysfunction and boredom are factors for which the Relationship Escalator fails to account, clearly, but these are factors that definitely impact a relationship very highly–especially if sexual bonding is a key validation point for desirability and connection.

When previously-monogamous couples begin exploring opening up their relationship to others, there are a LOT of potential challenges facing them. The fact that the Relationship Escalator has left us with a deeply indoctrinated set of linear expectations for how relationships work, it’s unsurprising that when we see our partners connecting with other lovers they way they initially connected with us, it triggers a deep fear that we will be replaced in sequence, rather than supplemented in our present place by additional relational factors. Jealousy becomes the #1 issue couples transitioning from closed to open models face; “if you treat $NEWLOVER the way you treated me, how can I trust you’re not just going to replace me with them??”

The short answer is, we don’t. Getting ourselves off the narrow path of that escalator is, if nothing else, a tremendous leap of faith in which we HAVE to trust that things will be okay, that our partner(s) are not choosing replacement but enhancement. Of the many rocks on which our ships will likely flounder, is the sense that love and desire are as finite resources as time and physical energy are. It’s true that adding other partners of any degree of investment requires time, and that no matter how much we wish otherwise, there are still only 24 hours in a day and 7 days in a week. Therefore if we prioritize more time to a new lover (as is the commonest complaint once New Relationship Energy [NRE] is in the picture), we aren’t spending that time with our existing relationships and commitments. The sudden behavioural shift that reflects prioritization is often interpreted as decreasing interest in the existing relationship. This isn’t always true on core levels, but it is true that NRE tends to eclipse the best intentions of the unwary or unprepared.

Creating relationships beyond the narrow linearity of cultural expectations allows different relationship structures to meet different needs. From a family/relational systems perspective, most observers agree that a two-legged stool (the common monogamous model) is a very unstable structure; a three-legged stool offers a much stronger sense of balance. In Bowenian terms, this is “triangulation”, a process by which introducing a third element to a two-party system allows one or both of the original partners to reduce exclusive focus or dependence on each other, spreading expectations and need-meeting requirements now across a more diverse support system. This is in large part what happens in monogamous infidelity; a dyadic partnership fails to meet the needs of one or more of its constituents, so that need-meeting is sought elsewhere in secret contravention of standing agreements between the original dyad. But at the same time, getting the needs met elsewhere will, at least in the short term, decrease the pressure on the partnership… at least until other issues arise to take the place of whatever was missing initially.

Recognizing that it’s perhaps unrealistic to assume that one person can successfully meet ALL of our needs for ALL of our lives is a common reason why people explore non-monogamy. An additional challenge that can arise from opening up monogamy to other relational formats is dealing with the consequence of that realization. It can hurt, admitting that we’re not the be-all-and-end-all of need-meeting machines for our partners. I blame Disney and a lifetime’s worth of horribly unrealistic romance novels for instilling in us a belief that finding Mr or Ms Right meant that all our troubles were over and we’d live “happily ever after”, for ever and ever, amen.

Rising divorce/remarriage rates and skyrocketing demands for couples/relational counselling suggest quite the opposite, in fact.

And yet, the fantasy persists, often beyond the scope of all rational thought.

That fantasy is what, in my opinion, lies at the base of the Relationship Escalator’s pervasive endurance. We want to believe in the myth of “happily ever after”. Many of my relational clients are struggling with their own sense of failure, or disappointment in their partner’s inability, to meet needs in adequate fashion. They believe that monogamous happiness SHOULD be accessible if I/you/we just work HARDER, or if $PARTNER would just CHANGE into something they’ve clearly never been before, or if we ourselves could just magically meet all of their needs. Non-monogamy, for those who brave those challenging waters, reduces the tension on dyadic pairings by opening up the option of loving partners for who they are in their flawed limitations (and being loved for ours) but NOT requiring them to be everything we need them to be, if they can seek that need elsewhere without destabilizing whatever relationship we choose to maintain.

I won’t lie. Dismounting the escalator’s not an easy path to navigate. Monogamy exists largely to protect the partnership at its core, and in the non-monogamous communities there are deeply-divided camps around how ethical non-monogamy SHOULD work. Transitioning out of monogamy often looks a lot like setting up a rigid system of rules that protect “couple privilege”; at the outset this has the advantage of letting everyone involved believe they can trust in the rules to shape expectations. In truth, NRE and opaque shifts in priority-indicating behaviours mean that all the rules in the world will RARELY actually protect anything in the long run, especially once the deeper feelings that come tied to sexual bonding get involved. So, rules get broken, boundaries get tested or pushed… feelings get hurt. The escalator starts to break down because what we had presumed to be “natural progression” is being challenged or thwarted, and we don’t know what to do.

Again, I come back to something Franklin Veaux wrote years ago, describing jealousy as a “broken refrigerator”:

“Let’s assume your relationship is a refrigerator. One day, a problem arises in your relationship—the refrigerator quits working. You walk into your kitchen, there’s a puddle on the floor, and all your frozen pizzas and ice cream are a gooey mass in the bottom of the freezer. There are a few things you can do at this point, once you’ve mopped up the mess and scraped the remains of last night’s lunch out of the fridge. One solution is to fix the refrigerator; another is to replace it. A third solution is to leave the refrigerator exactly where it is and change your life around the problem—“From this day forward, I will bring no frozen or refrigerated foods into this house.” In the poly community, the last option is the one most people choose. […]

Fixing the refrigerator means doing exactly that. It means saying, “I know that I am feeling jealous. I know that the jealousy is brought about by some other emotion—some emotion that is triggered by the action that makes me jealous. I need to figure out what that other emotion is, and I need to figure out why that action triggers that emotion.”

Until you do that, you are helpless in the face of the jealousy. If you don’t understand it, there is nothing you can do to address it. Trying to understand it isn’t easy; when you’re ass-deep in alligators, it’s easy to forget that the initial goal was to drain the swamp, and when you’re entirely overwhelmed by gut-wrenching emotions that are tearing you to pieces, it’s easy to forget that these emotions are grounded in some other emotions. In the middle of jealousy, all you want is for the jealousy to stop, and you don’t care how.

So, you confuse the trigger with the cause. You believe, erroneously, that the source of the jealousy is the action that triggers it. You see your partner kiss someone, you feel jealous, you want the jealousy to stop, you pass a rule: “No more kissing.”

Partners stuck in this loop try to force the new additions to the relationship structure to conform to a set of expectations as narrow and linear as the escalator we ourselves are trying to exit, but because we only know one model for building relationships, we’re stuck with that model until we find a way to jettison it. So we enforce excluding aspects of the known escalator: “you can’t do that thing that looks like building a relationship with someone else, because that’s what WE DO TO signify WE are in relationship.” Regardless of which partner role you find yourself in with this kind of situation, that’s a hugely craptastic place to be.

It *can* be done. And the more resources we have available to help navigate these kinds of explorations, and the more commonplace (ethical) non-monogamy becomes, the easier it slowly gets to divest ourselves of the historical fantasy of “till death do us part”. We’ve grown to accept multiple sequential marriages as a fact of life, so the myth is slowly coming apart at the seams. We’re still hung up on sexual experience and discomfort around knowing our partners have even HAD sex with others before us, let alone with others WHILE ALSO with us, and that’s going to remain a moral stumbling block for a long time to come, I suspect, just based solely on the numbers of couples who try to explore non-monogamy within a policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. But so long as we can be both clear and gentle about why we might want to open up these discussions within a monogamous relationship, and as long as both partners in the originating dyad are equally willing to explore these kinds of options (one is not coercing the other), then we have tools and platforms for steering these explorations as far off the rocks as we can, and supporting transitional stages for those looking for options that don’t fit the constrained limitations of that Relationship Escalator.

Article links, Polyamory, Relationships

Something that has come in handy as a tool when I’m working with clients in any kind of non-traditional relationship model who are struggling with definitions and expectations tied to “traditional” relational definitions, is the Relationship Escalation model. Polyfolk know but still frequently get caught in, and monogamous folks moving into open relationship structures often discover the hard way, that the invisible values carried forward out of traditional (and cultural) relationship models can still trip us up, especially in the realm of emotional expectations.

When a newly-opened relationship starts to date people and develop relationships according to the same patterns with which they have always developed relationships, it can cause a lot of instability because it looks like (and, to many, often feels like) developing the *NEXT* relationship in the serial monogamy model, rather than developing a concurrent loving relationship in the poly model. Intellectually we may know better, but on the gut level?? This is one of the most common issues I see with my poly and mono-to-open clients, next to communications issues.

So how do you work with that? First, by becoming aware of the “built-in models”: the inherited values and invisible expectations, then by learning how to effectively choose differently than the programming. Some people want the escalator, and that’s cool; but for those who want to stop the escalator and get off, here’s a good place to start working on being (becoming) aware of how that invisible cultural programming that people often trip on, generally works.

Activism, Politics, Polyamory

This morning, I received this email from the Registry of Marriage & Family Therapists in Canada (of which I am a member):

Dear Karen,

Canada’s Election Offers an Opportunity to Educate

Canada’s current federal election provides Marriage and Family Therapists across the country, a unique opportunity to educate and raise the profile of the profession with the candidates. In each constituency, candidates will be asking for opportunities to discuss their positions on a variety of issues they believe to be important in their particular riding. As a member of the Registry of Marriage and Family Therapists in Canada, this is your opportunity to ask the candidates in your riding questions focused on issues of importance to you as a Marriage and Family Therapist.

In order to facilitate this process, we are working on compiling a list of questions and related background information for use with candidates. Please take a couple of minutes to drop us an email at info@marriageandfamily.ca with one or two issues or questions you believe to be important to you as a Marriage and Family Therapist or to your clients. The questions and related background information will be posted on the RMFT website at www.marriageandfamily.ca
My response:

Hi Donna, and thanks for the opportunity to include questions for the candidates!
Because I deal with some vulnerable subcultural groups, one of which is receiving a lot of media attention these days, I do have some questions:

Between the establishment of queer marriage rights and the onset of the media coverage in Bountiful BC, Canadians are being confronted more frequently with the understanding that not all (consenting adult) intimate relationships are between one man and one woman. While there is a slowly-increasing number of therapists who are experienced or trained in dealing with these non-monogamous, non-heteronormative relational structures, government support and resources for mental and medical healthcare seems to be slower in acknowledging that “relationship” and “family” have far broader meanings than they used to. What does the government (federal, provincial, or municipal) see as being the biggest roadblocks to providing adequate — and equal — care coverage for extended family households or marriages? How is the government at all levels educating itself around the pervasive existance of these non-traditional but very real family units, without resorting to pathologizing and dismissing them, to the detriment of those constituents who have chosen to live in these unsupported family arrangements?

(Note: Polyamory is, to the poly community, a very different thing than polygamy, particularly religious-based polygamy such as we’re seeing in the media coverage of the FDLS trials in BC. But the public doesn’t often know enough to make the distinction, and we’re finding that lack of informed coverage and cultural differentiation is part of what makes therapy a generally uncomfortable, if not outright hostile, environment to the poly community.)

I very much look forward to reading the participants’ responses, and thanks again for providing the platform to ask the questions.


Karen Grierson