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*?