Be My Valentine
Note to Readers: This week's article is an expanded version of my February column in a regional magazine where I live, called Chronogram.
Dear Friend and Reader:
When I first started writing for Chronogram
, an arts and culture magazine where I live in the Hudson Valley, I once succeeded in causing a controversy.
Photo by Eric Francis.
Oh really? you say. And how was that?
Well, I wrote a three-part series on polyamory -- that is, on what some call 'responsible nonmonogamy' and others call 'open relationships'. I guess this was around 1997. It seems like so long ago. I started the first of the three articles by coming out to my readers as polyamorous; I thought it was a good idea to get that fact out of the way. I love relationships and the art of relating, and I like to connect with whomever feels right to relate with, in whatever way is mutually agreeable.
(Trust me, those terms and conditions don't leave a lot of room for the anarchy you may think is brewing.)
I described my motivations and a bit about my experiences, and mentioned that there exist a significant number of people who either are polyamorous or want to be, but who don't quite feel comfortable speaking up. Sometimes, though, just learning the word has a way of setting someone free -- I've heard that a lot. Other people, though, can get defensive, as if the one and only legitimate form of relationship is being compromised. Jason Stern, one of the founders of Chronogram
who was then its editor, said that he was hearing from readers and advertisers about the series from people even five years later. Five years! You know, the usual complaints about how his writer was going to bring down Western civilization and so forth.
As of today, the topic has been covered by everyone from Newsweek
to Huffington Post
and appears as a regular feature on the website of Psychology Today
Polyamory has been discussed on the pages of The New York Times
, The Washington Post
, The Boston Globe
and The Independent
(UK). There exists a very nice blog with archives going back to 2005 that is devoted to keeping up with all the news coverage and analysis polyamory gets. It's called Polyamory in the News
and it will come up with Google's 'I'm Feeling Lucky' option. There are so many published news and website references to polyamory that it's both impressive and funny. The archives are brimming with this open secret, this thing that's so taboo nobody can bring themselves to talk about it anywhere but at a polyamory conference. I've found that most of the news stories are fairly balanced, describing well-adapted adults making choices about the structure of their families.
I have my reasons for suspecting why the issue is so touchy-hushy, which I won't get into in this article (I covered them in an earlier article called The One and The Many
Photo by Eric Francis.
But before I go on, let me say this.
You read it here first.
If you were reading Chronogram
or Planet Waves at the time, you read it before it was a thing in the mainstream press, and long before the LGBTQ movement had its wings or its many letters. You read it before many documentaries were made. You read it here before it was cool to come out (as anything). You read it nine whole years before the word polyamory
was added to the Oxford English Dictionary
Here is how those erudite scholars define the word: "The fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, esp. in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned."
In other words, not Tiger Woods. And not King Henry VIII, about whom the term polyamorist
was used in 1953 to describe him, in the Illustrated History of English Literature, Volume 1
by A. C. Ward. This may have actually been the first iteration, and in a sense Henry was polyamorous in the eyes of the church. Today, he would be called a 'serial monogamist', which I think is an oxymoron; I prefer 'serial polyamorist' for those who have their relationships in a long sequence.
I would add a couple of things missing from the OED's definition. One is that it's a sexual and emotional orientation. It is not for everyone, and there is a good chance one is either born polyamorous, or that the capacity or need exists on a deep level in the psyche. Many people who are in monogamous relationships are closeted polys. They can be filled with the same guilt and shame and self-questioning as a gay kid whose friends are predominantly straight.
And while relatively few people openly identify as polyamorous, there are many who are so in practice. They just don't want to be labeled. I can see the point, though I'm not a big fan of denial. There comes a time in life when you have to say who you are, to the people who really matter.
Many others are curious and restless, knowing that for them monogamy has run its course. The one certified form of relationship is not giving them space to get their needs met. Many couples are eager to open up their relationships, and not just because they want some sexual variety; they also crave the bonding, growth opportunities, and expanded community that come with doing so. And yes, some grounded sexual freedom feels really good. If you're one of these people, go on Amazon and start ordering books.
Photo by Eric Francis.
In many of my other writings about sexuality and about polyamory I emphasize the idea that the actual thing we need to be doing is exploring our individuation. I believe that our obsession with relationships, finding our soul mate, hooking the right guy to marry and so forth, are a big distraction from learning to be who we are. I believe that exploring polyamory can -- no guarantee here, but a possibility -- help facilitate that quest for individuation because it requires us to take a conscious step into who we are.
Then the practice of being yourself, which means being fully honest, with several different people, and explaining this to your friends and family, is the perfect kind of confrontation that provides us with the space to individuate. People provide different kinds of mirrors, and the more mirrors you explore yourself in, the more points of view you will get.
As part of this process, you will get a rare and beautiful opportunity to face your insecurities, do something about your jealousy and unpack lots of the baggage you're carrying from childhood. And you get the chance to hold space for your brothers and sisters to do the same. There is a lot of processing inherent in being polyamorous, especially at first.
Granted, this is merely a step on the way to the deepest level of self-exploration, which involves stepping as far out of emotional co-dependency as possible. Any form of relationship can become a spiral. But being fully authentic in your relationships (as opposed to hiding, lying, denying, etc.), is a great step in the right direction.
The word polyamory is an umbrella term. It refers to no one particular relationship style, and the concept goes well beyond sex. At its essence it's about love and relating, but the sexual aspect of relationships, including sexual feelings, is considered normal and is treated in a more open way. Sex is not 'mandatory' but it's absolutely included.
There exist many methods and styles of polyamory; I will describe a few of them to the degree necessary to help you check whether you identify with one or more. My initial intent of this article (when I wrote it to be published locally) was to get some poly action going in the Hudson Valley. There are no groups here that I know of; nobody holding events. If you like the idea, I suggest you circulate it among your friends and get something going in your neighborhood as well. At least, you can get a conversation going.
For those who identify with these ideas but might hesitate, I can assure you that once a concept has made Newsweek,
the Oxford English Dictionary
and a dedicated blog on Psychology Today
, it is sufficiently mainstream that you don't have to mutter 'I'm not so weird, I'm not so weird' under your breath on the way to your first potluck dinner. This, by the way, I will host in my photo studio Valentine's Day (contact instructions are at the end of this article). I'm also open to doing evening or day workshops (I have presented dozens of them -- everywhere but locally.)
Here is something you may not have thought of, vis-à-vis poly. We can all name gay and lesbian celebrities. Can you name one openly polyamorous celebrity?
Obviously they exist. But who are they?
Photo by Eric Francis.
Poly folk have a few odd things in common. We tend to be a bit bookish. We love a good theory; we tend to read and write about our way of life. A lot of talking is involved. There's a fantasy among many that being poly is like one endless night in the old Penthouse
mansion at the peak of the 1970s. Every now and then it might be, though usually it's pretty different from that. Some of us consider ourselves social engineers, helping design and build better structures and concepts of human interaction. Most of us just want to love the way it's natural for us to love.
The poly movement got its start in science fiction novels, particularly Stranger in a Strange Land
by Robert A. Heinlein. The upshot of that story is that a human born and raised on Mars by Martians (named Valentine Michael Smith), was returned to Earth by his foster parents. Being raised off-world, he lacked the typical human hang-ups (guilt, body shame, mendacity, limits imposed on his capacity to love) and, as a result, he manifested a very friendly scene around him. He was also a good kisser. A very interesting adventure ensued. It's one of the books I'll never forget and one of my inspirations for being a sci-fi and fantasy writer.
That was a book. It turns out that nonfiction humans are less monogamous than they claim to be, and that many of the 'standard narratives' are simply not supported by observation or genetic research. But the thing that makes a person polyamorous is being up front about that fact.
Then two questions always arise: What about jealousy? and, What about the kids?
Jealousy is a factor in most relationships, particularly monogamous ones. As we all know, presumed exclusivity does not address the issue itself. Usually it's swept under the rug by the presumption of monogamy or by not telling one's partner about an affair because 'that would hurt them'. Polyamory takes jealousy as either therapeutic subject matter, or as a teacher (same basic idea). The issue is put right out onto the table. When you can look at it, it's no longer the daunting monster that it seems to be when left in the closet. It becomes the basis of a growth and healing process designed to unearth and address the insecurity, envy and lack of self-esteem beneath the surface.
Photo by Eric Francis.
One of the first concepts that anyone stepping into polyamory finds out about is compersion
. That is the experience of being turned on by the love and pleasure of the people you care about. Some say it's the opposite of jealousy; I say it's an alternate universe of a world where jealousy is a ubiquitous toxin. Compersion is like taking a Buddhist approach to relationships. It is an emotion, but it's also an approach to existence. It is the equivalent in polyamorous relationships to oxygen in the biological world.
As for the kids, I don't think that any conventional form of relationship can, in practice, claim to be inherently good for kids. Many of our parents who preached or attempted to follow the doctrine of monogamy had many extremely messy relationships, right in our faces. Rather, it's how we conduct our relationships that matters: the content rather than the form. There are some truly functional marriages -- but not all of them are, and it's not marriage that makes the relationship functional. Not so long ago, sexual monogamy used to be set in the context of an extended family. There was always a sister, aunt, or uncle around to watch the kids. There was always company around. In many contemporary marriage-based households where two parents work, the kids are severely neglected. And if the parents don't get along, the kids will suffer no matter how monogamous the parents are. If the parents are deceptive, the kids will know.
Most people practice what they call serial monogamy, which typically means instability and lack of real support that a more stable form of relationship would provide. That is not a good environment for kids. Many of us raised since the '70s and '80s are the products of this relationship style. Serial monogamy is a way of treating people like they're disposable. Polyamory is a mode of relationship that, for many people, involves putting friendship first.
It provides a context in which to explore creative experiments. It's designed to create a stable environment, which, if it does not automatically work, is at least workable. If polyamory can't make a claim on sustainability, at least it is practical. The idea is to embrace conscious family and household design.
I admit this requires honesty and maturity, which can seem to be scarce commodities. In an old book called Bringers of the Dawn
, the Pleiadian entities who are the purported source of the material make a good point. They say that humans are inherently polyamorous, but we have an integrity problem. Therefore, the most efficient form of relating is monogamy.
Thanks, guys. It's nice to have a non-human perspective on this. Speaking as a person, I would say that we need to be who we are and along the way, open up and address the integrity issue. I'm not suggesting that anyone who is not polyamorous pretend to be so, and I'm not saying that it's some kind of mandatory thing. What I am suggesting is that whoever feels the calling take the opportunity to get real. If you would like a guide to doing that, check out the book Radical Honesty
by Brad Blanton. Not the later ones in the series -- the first one, with a two-word title.
In the space remaining, let me introduce you to three kinds of polyamorous relationships, to give a sense of the diversity of possibilities. I'm going to explain them in the first person, using I-statements for consistency. These are just three basic examples out of many possibilities, all of which are in truth unique to the people involved. They are all interesting, when you listen to the people who are involved.
I'm in a pair-bonded couple. We've been together for a few years and have good clear communication. My partner meets a man she likes and begins seeing him socially. I encourage her to explore if she wants to; I've met him and I get along with him. She's open about their experiences with me. They are both respectful of our primary partnership. They get closer and want to explore sexually. I'm open to this. Jealousy is not an issue because I think her sexuality is beautiful no matter how she expresses it. There are many other possibilities for triads, including situations where all three partners are sexually and emotionally involved, or live together (the real definition of ménage a trois
Photo by Eric Francis.
I am in a long-term relationship with my lover on the East Coast, where I live. I have a friend and sometimes lover on the West Coast who predates this relationship by years. We are close friends and have a deep understanding; what feels in truth like a lifelong bond. A few times a year, we meet up somewhere and spend time together. Our other relationships accommodate this because we've been open about it with new partners from the outset. There are other forms of panfidelity, which all involve long-term, committed polyamorous situations.
I prefer to live independently. I have a number of friends, locally and around the country, with whom I am emotionally close and can be sexually open. I also have one or two 'friends with benefits'. I enjoy closeness and sexual variety but I don't want to be in a traditional pair-bonded situation or household-based relationship. I prefer my social freedom and I want to keep my options open.
What all the forms of relationship under the umbrella of polyamory have in common is an ethos of honesty and authenticity. Love is offered in a spirit of freedom, and when challenges arise, which they almost always do, the people involved are prepared to work them out. There are tools and resources that we can avail ourselves of, including a growing community of poly-friendly counselors. I've been tapped as a poly-friendly (and bi-friendly) astrologer for many years. If you're poly and your therapist says you need to grow up or you're acting out, I suggest you talk to someone who has a clue what your life is about.
Now for the local action piece. If you live in the Hudson Valley of New York, or somewhere close by and you feel like taking a ride, you're invited to inquire about coming to my Valentine's Day Poly Potluck. This will be Monday evening, Feb. 14. You may write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
. Tell me a little about yourself and your interest in polyamory, and please include contact information. The curious are welcome.
By the way, I have a friend who is a well-studied astrologer and who is poly. She did a study reading the charts of poly people, to see what the successful ones had in common. Can you guess what it was?
The answer is a strong Saturn. That is astrological language for healthy boundaries.
Yours & truly,