Poly 101
Rose Fox; March 20, 2006
a garden in riotous bloom

This text originally appeared as part of Rose's "Polyamory 101" workshop. It is reproduced here as a reference with her full consent.

Thank you all for coming out tonight for this. My name is Rose Fox and I've been poly since I was 14, well before I knew there was a word for it. I currently have two partners, Josh and Xtina. Josh and I have been together almost four years; we live together and are getting married in a few weeks. Xtina and I have been together... uh... two years? I have to count back in my head. I think it's two, unless it's three. No, it has to be two. See, this is how much attention I pay to anniversaries! Anyway, she lives in Boston and is about to move to Oregon with her partner Brad. I could go out to another couple of degrees but after a while it becomes "Hey, I have this chart" and we could be here all night, so let's skip that part.

How many of you are new to the idea of polyamory? Welcome. I applaud your indulgence of your curiosity. And how many are poly already? Well, most of this will be old hat to you, most likely, but I hope you'll stay tuned in anyway and tell me if you think I'm going astray.

A lot of polyamory is about finding creative shortcuts that bend or break conventional rules in order to address a need that isn't being met, and the term itself--a blend of a Greek root and a Latin root--is an example of that. It seems to have been coined independently at about the same time by two women: Jennifer Wesp, who founded the Usenet newsgroup alt.polyamory, and Morning Glory Zell of the Church of All Worlds. Polygamy, both polygynous and polyandrous, go back millennia and appear in many different cultures, usually as expressions of power and wealth or in response to scarcity of resources. Polyamory in its more modern form, with an emphasis on love in general--amory--rather than marriage in specific, mostly goes back to the free love movement of the 60s. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, there are now poly support and discussion groups all around the world, with members of all ages, genders, backgrounds, and orientations.

Polyamory is not just loving many people, but loving in many different ways. There are countless styles and expressions of polyamory, and people frequently reinvent it to suit their own particular needs. It's very important to communicate expectations accurately to potential partners and to learn good tools for negotiating around the different needs and desires of the people involved. It sounds like a lot of work, and often it is. However, I've found that these tools are entirely applicable to monogamous relationships as well, and to many other situations where a lot of people need to negotiate solutions that work well for everyone. I'll go into that in more detail further on.

I got started with polyamory more or less by accident. When I started dating my first boyfriend, I was fourteen and he was fifteen. We were starry-eyed enough to think about things like getting married and being together forever. We were sensible enough to know that at that age, we didn't know all there was to know about sex or romance, and we agreed that we didn't want to cut off possible avenues of exploration. We had heard of these things called open relationships and decided to try one. We were entirely naive, but I think that actually worked to our advantage: no one had ever thought to tell us it couldn't be done, so we weren't nearly as apprehensive as we might have been. It worked so well that I did become a poly evangelist for a while, and it took me a long time to understand that it doesn't work for everyone.

As with orientation, libido, and just about everything else having to do with sex and romance, it's hard to say how much of being poly is biology and how much is psychology. Some people are definitely hardwired to be poly. I seem to be one of them; when I'm in relationships that are explicitly monogamous in structure, I'm miserable, much more so than when I'm in open relationships but don't happen to be involved with more than one person. I need to know that the option is there. On the other end of the spectrum, there are absolutely people who have eyes for no one but their one-and-only and expect their one-and-only to only have eyes for them. And there are people who switch, who are perfectly comfortable being monogamous but will also make multiple connections if their relationship structures allow for it.

Beyond those basic distinctions, there's a huge variety of ways that people do and think about polyamory, plus a whole host of associated and spin-off romantic and sexual styles. If you're considering opening up a relationship or looking for a poly situation, it's important to think about where your natural inclinations are; that will help you to know what to look for. A person might have a single primary partner and then one or more secondary partners who get less time or attention. Sometimes this is determined from the start, as often happens when a longtime couple (or dyad, as those of us obsessed with relationship structures like to say) decide to open their relationship, and sometimes it comes about through circumstance, as with myself and my partner Josh: we live together, and simply because we spend so much time together and are so deeply involved in each other's lives, our relationship has developed much faster and more intensely than my relationship with Xtina has, though I love her just as much. Some people make serious efforts to treat all their partners equally, regardless of living situation or duration of involvement. Those who live quiet ordinary lives that are just like monogamy but with more people--usually sharing a house, usually in a closed relationship system that's not open to new partners, often raising kids--are sometimes called "picket fence poly".

There are also several modes that I feel are just as legitimate as these but that tend to be disparaged by what for lack of a better term I will call the mainstream poly community, mostly because they're more about sex and less about romance. There's swinging, where established couples swap partners for sex but don't usually get romantically entangled with anyone new. There's the more promiscuous style that I often hear referred to as polyfuckery, and likewise, BDSM aficionados who play outside their established relationships could be said to engage in polykinkery. When people get into multiple relationships until they find the right person to be monogamous with, I call it "poly until Prince Charming". And finally, there's "don't ask don't tell" and flat-out cheating. I personally could not be involved in a DADT relationship, but I know people for whom they work well. I revile cheaters and cheating of any kind--and when I say "cheating" I mean "breaking the rules you agreed to", whatever they are, so it's quite possible for poly people to cheat on one another--but I do include it under the wide umbrella of polyamory because it entails being involved, however duplicitously, with multiple people.

One of the big hassles of coming out as poly is that all of these nuances are pretty much lost on your average monogamous person. They think it's all swinging, or it's all cheating. Even when you reassure them repeatedly that everyone's honest, it's hard to believe. So right up front it's very important to control the vocabulary of the discussion as much as possible, and to remember that what you're doing is right for you and you don't need to justify it or make excuses for it. Coming out is a whole big complicated thing that really deserves its own separate discussion, so I'm going to gloss over it here, though I'm happy to take questions on it at the end. The short short version is that it's just like coming out as queer or pagan or anything else non-mainstream: you have to fight against unconscious stereotypes as much as or more than outright prejudice, you have to educate as gently as possible, and it's probably best to talk more about love than about sex, especially if you're coming out to family members, coworkers, or people of a different generation (older or younger). Keep emphasizing how happy you are. Be disgustingly happy. Get a big glowy smile on your face. It's hard to argue with that.

Getting into a poly relationship is easy, or at least as easy as getting into any other kind of relationship: someone says "How about it?" and someone else says "Sure" and there you are. Being in a poly relationship, and keeping it running, is hard. There are some key themes that I've already touched on a bit and will probably emphasize again. Here's the top five list that I've developed over many years of difficult experience:

Know yourself. Speak up for yourself. Be patient and kind. Don't let emotions make you stupid. Reach out to your extended network.

* Know yourself.
This is big big big. Look at yourself from the outside. Observe your own behavior. Listen to the warning voice in your head and learn when to pay attention to it and when to tell it to quit fearmongering. This is key in any relationship, but in a poly setup it is absolutely essential. If you're jealous, why are you jealous and what makes it better or worse? If you're lonely when your partner is out on a date, is it because you miss your partner or because you just want company? Figuring these things out can make a world of difference in creating situations and structures that make everyone happy. Make sure you update your self-knowledge regularly; people change, and we can get so attached to our images of ourselves that it's hard to admit or even notice when they get outdated. Know yourself.

* Speak up for yourself. This is why knowing what you really want and what your real priorities are is so important: you must be your own advocate and you must know which fights are worth fighting. It's not about not trusting your partner; of course you should trust your partner to keep your best interests in mind whenever possible. However, people's memories are short and poor and often out of date, and while with two people it's not unreasonable to expect your partner to remember, say, how you like your coffee, once more people enter the equation, you may need to sometimes say, "No, Toby is the one who wants cream and two sugars, I like it black." Do you want to make sure you get taken to dinner on your birthday? Say so, and if your birthday is on a Tuesday and Tuesday is usually Chris's date night with Toby, make sure you ask them explicitly to reschedule. Habits are strong. Exceptions are hard to remember. Be thorough and explicit and state your needs early and often. Speak up for yourself.

* Be patient and kind. This is a major corollary to being your own advocate. Understand that more energy in the system means more chaos. Understand that your partner cannot keep six people's schedules and preferences in his head. Work to find coping mechanisms for perennial problems--online calendars and Palm Pilots are big favorites--and if something gets forgotten, let it go as quickly and quietly as you can. Learn the value of compromise. Scratch their backs and they'll scratch yours. Enjoy the buzz of being nice to other people. Be patient and kind.

* Don't let emotions make you stupid. Love making you stupid might mean, for example, that you end up having unprotected sex. If you're monogamous, that's only putting you at risk. If you have other sexual partners, you're putting all of them at risk. Similarly, it might mean getting involved with someone who's in a bad situation and feeling that you have to ride in on your white horse and save the day (possibly at great expense to yourself and your shiny armor), or it might mean taking on more involvements than your schedule or mental health or physical ability permit, or it might mean falling for someone who's just plain psycho. Go ahead, laugh, we've all done it. But again, when you have other partners, and you go off and play in the mud, when you come home you get them all muddy too and it turns into a great big mess. That bad situation or even just a new involvement can suck your time and attention away from people you've promised it to. That psycho might stalk you to your house, and it's not just your house, it's your partners' house (or even maybe your kids' house). Love isn't the only distracting emotion, either: getting caught up in pain or grief or righteous wrath will necessarily distract you from your partners. If your buddy wants you to train with him to run a marathon, you'd better be sure your partners are okay with a few months of you being too exhausted to walk in the park with them. If you get involved with an activist group that wants you to travel down to DC once a month for protests or maybe risk getting arrested, I recommend you get your loved ones to sign off on that, especially if they'll have to make your bail. Take things slowly and make sure you can keep your existing commitments before you make new ones. Don't let emotions make you stupid.

* Reach out to your extended network. First of all, stay connected with your existing friends; if you have lots of romantic involvements, it's easy to get so overscheduled that you don't make room for platonic friendships, but it's important to keep those connections going too. As for your partners' partners, Let me make it very clear that I do not suggest sleeping with them unless you would do it regardless of other connections. You don't have to be friends with them. You don't even have to be friendly with them. However, take a moment to think about what would happen in an emergency. If your partner is at her boyfriend's house and she falls down the stairs and hits her head, you want her boyfriend to call you on the way to the hospital, right? So at the very least, make up an emergency contact list with everyone's number on it and distribute it. I hope you'll never have to use it, but it's a damned good thing to have if you need it. (Incidentally, this is a big part of why I don't do "don't ask don't tell": I want to know that anyone my loved ones are with know enough about their involvement with me to call me if something terrible happens.) Beyond that basic level, it's nice to form connections with others who have something very important in common with you. They can help you plan surprise parties or pick out birthday presents, and if you become close friends, they can be there for mutually supportive bitchfests ("Does he leave his socks in your living room too?" "Oh my God, does he ever!"). If you can at least be amicable in social situations, it will make things a lot easier on your mutual SO, and if you can get to be friends, it can be a lot of fun for everyone. At the very least, it will help you to remember that these other people are real people, which can help a lot if you've mostly been thinking of them as objects of envy or jealousy. Reach out to your extended network.

Oh yes, jealousy does happen in poly relationships. It happens a lot. Some people claim that poly people are never jealous; this may be true of some poly people, but it sure isn't true of all of us. I still vividly remember the way it felt the first time a partner said, "Well, I met this girl...." The bottom dropped out of my stomach. I actually felt faint. And then I remembered, he loves me, he trusts me, he's telling me this because he wants me to know and he cares what I think. And the moment passed and I said, "Tell me about her." It's not always that easy, of course, but the general idea is the same: Figure out what's pressing the jealousy button, and see what you can do to either stop pressing it or rip out the wiring. If you can manage both, that's even better. In that case, I was scared that if he loved someone else he wouldn't love me, and I managed to unwire the jealousy button by reminding myself of ways that he demonstrated his love for me while still obviously liking her quite a lot. This is where the "know yourself" bit comes in. If you're feeling worried that your partner doesn't love you, know what demonstrations of love will be most useful for you, and ask for them! It sounds terribly artificial, but if it's done sincerely, believe me, you can tell and it can make a huge difference to how secure you feel.

And remember that managing your own jealousy is your own responsibility, just like it's your own responsibility to not throw heavy objects at people who do things that anger you. You can certainly ask them to refrain from doing things that piss you off, but you also have to manage your own reaction. If you're lonely when your partner goes out on dates, make your own social arrangements or do something that distracts you. If you're feeling frumpy and unsexy because she's dating someone you think is more attractive than you are, buy yourself nice clothes or take a bubble bath or get a pedicure or go pump some iron, whatever helps you feel happy in your body. You may not be able to control how you feel, at least in the moment, but you can control how you behave. This is good to remember from the other direction, too. I see people with relationship rules like "It's okay to have sex with other people, but you can't fall in love with them" and it just baffles me. I've had to restrain myself from falling in love--not for poly reasons, incidentally, but because the object of my affections are very uncomfortable with them--and it was incredibly painful. I would never try to legislate a partner's feelings. However, relationship rules around behavior make plenty of sense to me. "Even if you're madly in love and she swears she's on the Pill and tested negative across the board, use a condom." "Even if you haven't picked up anyone new, get STD tests every three months." "I think of rock concerts as our special thing, so please don't go to rock concerts with people who aren't me." Is that a silly thing to ask? Maybe it is. But if it doesn't cost you anything, or it's clearly much more beneficial to your partner than it is harmful to you, say yes. Patient and kind, remember. And if the rules make sense to you, you won't have to work too hard to remember them.

The single biggest issue that I see causing jealousy is scheduling. Scheduling is a huge huge deal for polyfolk. If you've never been involved with multiple people, think back to, say, living with your parents, especially if you had siblings. What if you were in a school play and your brother had a swim meet and you both wanted Mom to be there? I don't know how suburban parents can stand having to drive their kids everywhere; in my family it was hard enough coordinating schedules with me and my brother in two different schools, my mother working from home in Manhattan, and my stepfather commuting to Westchester, and if we hadn't been able to get around to our friends' houses on our own it would have been a nightmare. Now imagine that all those interconnected people are adults, with adult obligations and responsibilities and social connections, and you can see why a Treo is considered the hot poly fashion accessory. It's not even about sleeping with a lot of people; it's about remembering whose office Christmas party is when, or which partner you promised to see V for Vendetta with. The unit of currency in a relationship is time together, and with 24 hours in a day and more than one other person to spend them with, time together becomes a very valuable commodity indeed.

One of my past partners hated the idea of regular weekly dates because it felt too commodified; she wanted me to spontaneously choose to spend time with her, to be more to me than just another appointment on the calendar. I didn't have room for spontaneity between work and extracurricular projects and living with Josh and traveling to visit Xtina. (Long-distance relationships make scheduling all the more hectic because travel time has to be factored in.) Finally, I set aside two nights a week and said, "I will spend one of these with you, and each week we will spontaneously decide which one." It was scheduled enough for me and spontaneous enough for her, and it ended up working pretty well. I think coming up with this sort of wacky solution to a highly individual problem is part of the fun of being poly. If nothing else, it's a great way to test your creativity. Obviously, the key here was identifying the real point of conflict, between my need for scheduling and her need for spontaneity. If she had said "I feel like seeing you once a week isn't enough", I might have tried to find more room in my very tight schedule and gotten all stressed over that, and there might have been grumpiness from other partners if she got more time than they did (which of course would have set off its own set of negotiations around questions of equal time and sufficient time and perceptions of hierarchy and who knows what else), and she still would have missed the feeling of spontaneity, and it would have taken much longer to find the setup we were both happy with. I find that going through theoretical ideal situations helps a lot in these discussions. As I recall, me asking "If your time with me could be structured any way at all, what would be ideal for you?" was what led her to say "I wouldn't want it to be structured in the first place" and then we could work from there.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try or how many negotiations you go through, it just doesn't work. Let me tell you, poly breakups can be horribly messy. If there's a triangle situation and then one pair split up, it can be incredibly awkward for the partner caught in the middle, who may be called on to comfort both of the others or feel a need to act as a go-between. (I don't recommend that, by the way. Playing telephone doesn't do anyone any good.) If you've ever been in a breakup where friends felt a need to take sides, imagine if those friends were in love with both of you. It's tough. It's also worth noting that opening up a relationship or getting involved with someone new is a terrible way to deal with existing problems. It's like starting a two-front war. New involvements will always, always, always cast a very harsh light on anything you thought was safely hidden away, and will often precipitate upheavals that might have otherwise been a longer time coming. It's rocky ground for the new relationship, too. Josh and I got through it but many people don't. Avoid problems with one partner by taking up with another and you may soon find you don't have either. This falls firmly under "Don't let emotions make you stupid"; in this case the emotion is fear. Take it from me: it's a lot better to deal with the fear than to try to cover it up or distract yourself with new love.

On the other hand, I've had some phenomenally easy breakups, usually by following those five rules. Here they are again for your convenience:

Know yourself. Speak up for yourself. Be patient and kind. Don't let emotions make you stupid. Reach out to your extended network.

I dated a guy in Australia for three and a half years. We loved each other to little itty bitty pieces. He visited me, I visited him, we spent hours on the phone, we wrote mile-long emails. But at some point, he stopped being in love with me. It baffled the hell out of both of us and we did our best to fix it, but no matter what we tried, the spark was gone. Finally, we accepted it and stopped trying. Oh, man, that hurt. That was hard. I cried a lot and I bet he did too. But we negotiated the breakup the way we'd negotiated all the rest of our important relationship decisions. We informed our other partners, who of course knew that we'd been having trouble, in a carefully-worded statement. We discussed the extent to which we were comfortable writing about it in our LiveJournals. We negotiated contact parameters (no phone calls but email was fine) and then when we decided to take a break from being in contact for a while, because we had all these old ideas in our heads about what our relationship was like and we had to clean them out so that we could build a friendship based on the new reality, we negotiated how long it would last and what it covered (email no longer okay, LJ comments still fine as long as we didn't overdo it). We did our best to understand our needs and advocate for ourselves and to be patient and kind with each other, and we made careful sensible sensitive decisions, and we leaned hard on our partners and friends but never badmouthed each other, in public or in private. We never gave each other cause for badmouthing. Believe me, that's the way to go. It can't always be done, but I do recommend at least trying for it.

It seems much too easy to say that polyamory is like monogamy only with more people involved. There's a lot of truth to it, though. Those five rules apply just as much to monogamous relationships; or to friendships, or to parent/child relationships, or to any other way that us crazy human beings connect with one another. You'll notice that I almost never mentioned sex; most of this isn't about sex. Xtina and I have sex about once a year, if that, and most of the time we don't even miss it because we're too busy playing word games and knitting and laughing like loons. It's about being who you are and creating a life that has room for all the ways that you want to connect with people. I love a lot of people, platonically as well as romantically. I adopt people into my family all the time. I also fall in love and enjoy being able to express that freely and openly. I work hard to make a life that supports that, and I think the work is well worth it. If you choose this path, I hope you feel it's worth it for you too.

Enough of that! Questions, comments, overripe fruit?