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The One And The Many: Polyamory and Precepts

February 21, 2011

Friends, I’m gonna try an experiment. Rather than pour out a long story about today’s topic (non-monogamy and polyamory), I’m just going to give a brief thumbnail sketch — and we can see where the comment thread takes us.

As some of y’all may have noticed on Facebook, Ryan and I (with our Bad Good Romance) have been in an open relationship for over a year. In the past, when asked “What’s that all about,” I’ve explained that rather than a declaration about having other lovers, it’s more an expression of commitment to exploring our desires in a non-judgmental, loving, honest way that doesn’t assume monogamy is the best path to a healthy relationship — for us or for others.

A little more background on the situation is that I identify (and have for years) as someone with polyamorous tendencies. I can feel happy and fulfilled with multiple lovers at once. Also, I’m happy for my lovers when I know they’re enjoying sex and companionship with other people. (Note: this is only true when things between my lover and me are going well. If things between us are souring, then I typically feel super jealous of the other sweethearts in their life.)

Ryan, on the other hand, has always operated on the monogamous side of things. By this I mean: when he’s with a partner, he’s not interested in being with other lovers; and it’s painful to him to know that someone he loves, and who loves him, also wants to romance somebody else. At the same time, he’s deeply respectful and even admiring of polyamory, and investigates questions of (non)monogamy both through reading (like the classic “Poly Primer” [as make/shift’s crossword puzzle clue called it] The Ethical Slut, which Ryan had read even before we met) and by deeply reflecting on his own feelings, perceptions, and experiences.

Up til now, our difference in orientation hasn’t mattered much for us. But recently, one of my favorite former lovers (what one might call an “ex-boyfriend”) moved from the Midwest to Berkeley, a short ways from our house. After a rocky past and more than a year without seeing each other or really communicating at all, he and I now find ourselves spending time together. An entire afternoon last week; something like fourteen hours yesterday.

And so, Ryan and I have been doing a lot of processing. Each of us feels scared of limiting or hurting the other one. But we don’t want to break up, either. Not an easy place. We both agree that polyamory seems like a positive practice, a good way to live. But for people who naturally gravitate toward exclusive relationships, walking this new path ain’t easy — and may not ultimately be worth the hurt.

At the same time, the way we hold one another — mentally and physically — throughout these painful talks only underscores how much, and how well, we love each other. This is non-violent communication from the heart, organically: expressing pain, grief, fear and heartache without blaming; taking physical space and declining touch when we need to; listening; not escalating; acknowledging and validating each other; taking the time and space to do all this properly; being physically affectionate when we both feel ready; and committing to follow through on what we decide, together, as the best way to move forward.

So that’s the terrain. I’m telling it in a straightforward, bare, almost dry way on purpose: to try to allow as much space as possible for questions and reflections. Also, I’m just kind of exhausted. This stuff takes energy, even though it’s worth it (to me). Right now, as the lessons and insights take clearer shape for Ryan and me, I’m interested in your questions and experiences with (non)monogamy and polyamory — especially in light of the precept that invites us to avoid using sexuality in harmful ways. Just because it’s not harmful doesn’t mean it won’t smart, right? How have you navigated similar circumstances? What sides of yourself (wholesome and unwholesome) have emerged, or been mirrored back to you?

Feel free to ask me anything, as long as it’s genuine, and doesn’t disparage polyamory (with certain geeky exceptions), or anyone involved in this situation.

Thanks, friends, and happy Monday. Hope you’re well.



29 Comments leave one →
  1. Roger Nehring permalink
    February 21, 2011 5:04 pm

    I have long believed that for many people a polyamorous marriage would be a very positive way to raise a family. Obviously it would take a lot of work, but so does any marriage, or any relationship for that matter. I also feel in some ways, it would be easier than the trditional monogamous couple. Of course I am thinking of two or more couples living communally. When I use the term marriage, I don’t mean legally binding contracts exclusively. And unless you are a monk or a nun, I don’t see how polyamory would conflict with any of the precepts if handled the way you describe. As i recall, you and Ryan recently moved into an apartment together with another roomie. I could see issues of loneliness or feeling neglected arising on the part of the partner who is not having any other relationship. Of course no couple should spend ALL their time with each other. Insecurities would be my biggest problem I suppose.

  2. Roger Nehring permalink
    February 21, 2011 5:06 pm

    By the way, very courageous of you to post on this. It is an important topic and most people would be reticent to discuss it like this, methinks.

  3. February 21, 2011 5:26 pm

    Some time ago I examined polyamory, more precisely compersion, in relation to the precepts and mudita on my now defunct blog. There were some good comments and links provided as well. Maybe it can be helpful to you or others

  4. February 21, 2011 5:38 pm

    Thank you, Roger, that’s really kind, and means a lot to me. I gotta say that I’m surprised and happy that you’re so down with polyamory, given that you’re, like, maybe 50 or older? (I think — hard to guess from tiny online profile pictures. :)) I assume (/stereotype) a generational gap, since folks my parents’ age, in my experience, have seemed horrified or really dismissive about the non-monogamy idea. So thanks for sharing and disabusing me of that assumption!

    I totally agree that a poly setup of multiple couples, or threesomes, etc., could be a great way to raise kids (I’m a fan, in theory, of collectivized/community child rearing, anyway), and I think you’re right that polyamory isn’t necessarily harder than monogamy. Luckily, in our household right now, there isn’t too much of a third-wheel dynamic, partly because our roommate has a sweet love life herself. But yeah, that’s definitely a dynamic the three of us talked about before we moved in.

    When you say you think that insecurities would be your biggest problem, do you have a sense of what types of insecurities? Don’t want to pry too much, but one thing that’s been really helpful to learn from Ryan’s reading of The Ethical Slut is the ways we might break down jealousy and insecurity into more specifically nameable parts. For example, we might feel insecure that our partner doesn’t love us enough, or we might feel insecure because we compare ourselves to our partner’s lovers. The two types might also coexist or overlap a lot, but for me it’s useful to disentangle them a bit, and try to get to know them independently.

    Thanks again for your thoughts and encouragement, Roger. Take care; hope this day finds you well!

  5. February 21, 2011 6:21 pm

    NellaLou! It’s good to see you! Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful post (with great content in itself, and then so many doors to other resources on Buddhism and polyamory! Damn!).

    You know, for us it’s been tough. Compersion is something that seems to come very naturally to some, and not easily at all to others — even if they can get behind it intellectually. Many advocates of compersion and polyamory seem to chalk this up to different levels of maturity or emotional development. That’s basically the idea that I get from The Ethical Slut, and in the conclusion of your post:

    I do indeed feel that compersion is a form of sexual mudita. But I also feel that to evince that in a relationship requires a very deep self-examination and maturity that most people have not developed.

    In a real way, I agree that compersion is a better mode, and might reflect an advanced orientation. But in practice, as we follow Aaron Muszalski’s sound advice, examining our feelings and making honest attempts at communication and engagement, it seems very important to also be gentle, compassionate, and patient with ourselves. To not shame ourselves or repress what we’re really experiencing emotionally, in order to try to be ‘good.’ And on the flip side, to not feel superior to others when we do experience compersion.

    Luckily, I think the dharma is really helpful on that front! But it’s not an angle I’ve seen explicitly addressed in pro-polyamory writings. (Understandably, I think, since they’re already going against the grain.) Have you?

    Do you have any stories or advice about how compersion might be cultivated wisely and gradually? I’ve heard that many people feel it’s very useful, for instance, for people who share a lover to meet each other. (Might not work in all circumstances, but seems like a good rule of thumb.)

    Thanks again for this, and for your work. Really really appreciate it.

  6. Sycorax permalink
    February 21, 2011 6:45 pm

    I think its actually beautiful and inspiring that you two are engaging in this process. I really admire you Katie for being open with your experiences with polyamory. It is typically taboo to talk about these problems, because in capitalism relationships between two people are supposed to be private, closed off and separate from society. However in reality we all know that couples are deeply embedded in our social circles, we affect them and they affect us. I think the separation between couple and group can be helpful in some ways but destructive in others. Furthermore I think its great you are sharing because it helps eliminate stigma around these problems. Stigma is also such a powerful coercive enforcer of heterosexist patriarchal society. I was reading a book the other day that said that even when couples decide to have more egalitarian relationships, they tend to encounter a great deal of negative discouragement from friends and family and a shit ton of pressure to conform to the heteronormative model. This just confirms that couples are not free floating individuals to make choices on their own. Society acts in a powerful way reinforcing the worst aspects of patriarchal capitalist relations between people in their private lives, and at the same time dictates that we stay silent about our private suffering because we are all supposed to be happy all the time! Bullshit. Break it open girl! As you rightfully point out, this tension is where we learn who we are as people and what we are made of, even when its hard. It takes courage to do that and its inspiring to watch (via blog) hehe.

    I think that capitalist commodity relations teach us to treat ourselves like commodities with only exchange value. We don’t learn to love ourselves in a deep way, in an accepting way. Of course in capitalism where we need a surplus population (as Audre Lorde points out) difference is used to stigmatize people and we learn to violently criticize everyone around us, as bad or good, right or wrong etc.

    As a person who recently went through (and continues to go through/cope with) an extremely painful breakup, I must say that I have been thinking a ton about polyamory lately. I found myself after the breakup in shambles wondering what happened? Aren’t I 26? Isn’t this my 4th someodd serious relationship? Why am I still reeling as if I just rode the ferris wheel 298483 times? Why is my life UPSIDE down? Why do I feel like I not know who I am? How did I lose such sight of what is important to me? When did I stop caring about my own happiness?

    I realize now, that for me, (I can only speak from my own perspective) the impulse towards being really possessive with a person has always been wrapped up in having my self worth too powerfully defined externally. That tendency, to seek value externally in my partners has lead to really ugly parts of myself coming out that I never want to see again. Parts that are jealous, that want to control. Instead of seeing my partner as a beautiful human being apart from myself, who I want to be happy, and free as much as possible, I grow to learn to want to dominant and control my partner. In the process I spend energy that I would have usually spent developing friendship around me, interests that I love and care about, on controlling someone else–in the process making us both unhappy. Why!?! This experience has really made me believe more than ever that to engage in a process of learning to love someone free from commodity relations is a deeply communist process (in my opinion). Alexandra Kollontai writes about this a lot actually, you should read some of her work: – Excerpt below:

    Each historical (and therefore economic) epoch in the development of society has its own ideal of marriage and its own sexual morality . . . Different economic systems have different moral codes. Not only each stage in the development of society, but each class has its corresponding sexual morality . . . the more firmly established the principles of private property, the stricter the moral code.

    Kollontai thus found that “The ideal of love in marriage only begins to appear when, with the emergence of the bourgeoisie, the family loses its productive functions and remains a consumer unit also serving as a vehicle for the preservation of accumulated capital” (284).

    Kollontai made the important argument that the very development, in capitalist society, of a sexualized love “that embraced both the flesh and soul” (283)—as opposed to feudal notions of chaste, chivalrous love—becomes the primary ideological mechanism for securing marital cooperation and stability in the project of accumulating and preserving capital.

    Moving away from property relations in our romantic relationships for me means I must learn to challenge a powerful mythological idea propagated in society -OWING BACK TO PROPERTY RELATIONS IN MARRIAGE __ the terribly illogical idea that ONE PERSON SHOULD BE EVERYTHING TO YOU, and CAN BE! And more so, that if we do not win the love and adoration of a person based on our ability to be everyone and EVERYTHING to that one person, we are dysfunctional, worthless individuals. This is a system of values destined (IN MY OPINION) to fail.

    It is also a system that is increasingly the case under capitalism. For example Stephanie Coontz writes:

    As for the question of who has time for love, it is true that finding time for family obligations is increasingly difficult in our speeded-up economy. But ironically, people seem to put even more emphasis on love as their time for community ties and neighborly socializing declines.

    One interesting trend in the past 20 years is that more people report their spouse is their best friend than in the past, but the total number of friends people have has been declining. So we’ve become more dependent on love to meet more of our personal needs. That diminishes our larger social ties, and it also puts a lot of burdens on the love relationship.<

    I think most of us are programmed to derive our self worth and happiness from one person and the less time and energy we have the more we learn to depend on only that one person. We isolate from others, deny our own feelings, learn to live in ways that are emotionally dishonest. I realize for me that what I have to do is once and for all figure out a way to do what I have always known deep down is the right thing for me– figure out a way to be in a relationship that is permeable. Figure out a way to thin out the barrier between non-relationship life and relationship-life. This doesn't mean not having meaningful relationships, it means having freeing and liberating life-long romantic friendships (which was very common back in the day). I think this kind of relationship is much less damaging to individuals and their communities because the barrier between relationship-and non-relationship is permeable. How do I learn to do this? I have NO freaking idea. But I find reading about you two's experience really inspiring and thought provoking.

    I think you two are blessed because It seems like ya'll have found a fantastic opportunity to GROW in a really safe and loving environment. Lucky! We rarely are challenged on that deep a level (level of fundamental self-worth) in that safe of a space, knowing that each person is dedicated to not hurting the other and being honest with one another. For real its really moving to me. Thanks for sharing your experience!!!! <3 I love you both!

  7. Crunch permalink
    February 21, 2011 8:28 pm

    I cannot thank you enough for this post. For me it was very insightful and beautiful to read.

    In my youth I saw very much how people become very codependant in relationships and the harm that people can do to one another in certain situations. Growing up I saw how the oppression of the society, in particular the oppression that comes from being a Black person in ths world, came to the household. Domestic violcence, drugs, etc. . . I’m not saying that any of this is because of monogomy but instead that we exist in a society that makes it an necessity for most peoples to come together in monogomous relationships, most often in unhealthy ways.

    Because of that, I believe that you two deserve major props, especially Ryan who seems to be challenging himself.

    I don’t know all there is to know about what’s going on in Ryan’s mind but I do know that men are socialized in ways that handle relationships in very patriarchal, unhealthy ways. Men are often socialized to see their relationships in ways that are very similair to conquest and getting their needs met constantly. So to hear about a man who is challenging himself, and in turn challenging his internal patriachy, by exploring polyamory that benefits both partners should be appluaded and encouraged.

    The honesty here is so beautiful and I wish both of you the best in your journeys.

  8. February 21, 2011 10:34 pm

    Sycorax and Crunch (roomies; I love it!), thank you so, so much for your heart-ful and mind-ful reflections. A crucial point that I hear from both of you is that social and economic forces form and con-form our experiences of love: experiences that are falsely naturalized as completely personal, private, and even biologically inevitable. There’s an enormous sense of freedom and relief in recognizing the many dysfunctional scripts of “normal” romantic love (and codependency), and realizing that other ways are possible. (Possible, again, not through individual will alone, but in the context of supportive community — like, for instance, what you’re offering me now, which I so appreciate.)

    One thing I wonder about is the ‘how.’ You bring this up, Sycorax. It’s one thing to recognize where we’re at, and where we want to get to, but what is the path for getting there? You’re so right that Ryan and I are really fortunate (and privileged) to have found/ co-constructed a relatively safe environment for growth and self-knowledge (partly by channeling the influential ideas of many individuals and groups). Also, I feel incredibly lucky that we can both use tools of Buddhist practice to grapple with strong emotions without getting overwhelmed. This is a skill set that, I find, helps me (slash pushes me to) cut through a lot of my social conditioning, including vulgar or dogmatic counter-culturalism — a kind of overcompensation that sucks me in sometimes. By training to (1) closely observe my own thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations, and (2) understand (with compassion) the impermanence of all of them, I find myself so much better equipped to deal squarely with these pains and discomforts. So I really wonder what other mechanisms people use in transforming their orientations to exclusive relationships. It seems like rational understanding and analysis are vital, but I feel like if that’s all I had — like if I’d been confronting this situation four years ago — I would still act out and undermine myself my positive intentions much, much more easily. So I’m not saying that Buddhist practice is the only answer, but I wonder what other systems there might be that unravel us in a good way on this level. That help us come to terms with the impossibility of — and I love the way you put this, Crunch; I think it’s really deep and universal in many ways — “getting our needs met constantly.”

    Crunch, I have so much respect and gratitude for all the ways you challenge yourself, and normative/oppressive sexualities, and seek to uplift others in the process. I think you’re right that a lot of men (maybe most) are socialized into sexualities of conquest and ownership. Since gender is so diverse, though (in spite of social norms), I also think that some men may experience jealous clinging not as a drive to compete, but mainly as a fear of loss or abandonment. Or something else. There are so many dimensions to fear and jealousy for all of us; it really amazes me. My own jealousy tends to come less from a fear of abandonment and more from a fear of inadequacy, of not being good enough. And who knows — maybe in the future that might shift somehow, and I might discover a new layer or permutation of fear in myself. Even while we stay savvy about larger social forces, the materials and paints and colors and objects we have to work with are particular and specific. The vivid scenes in your poetry often remind me of that. :)

    And the good news, like you say, is that it is possible to challenge and heal ourselves, even if we come from backgrounds and histories of trauma — individual and collective.

    Much love to you both. Much much. Thank you.

  9. leorasf permalink
    February 22, 2011 6:29 am

    Dear Katie,

    you are deeply brave. I can’t wait to talk with you in person. There is so much to say.


  10. The Truth of Narcissus permalink
    February 22, 2011 8:23 am

    Poly-amorous is another way of saying “I don’t love anybody as much as myself.” It’s a great gig, reducing all sex to mutual masturbation. It’s especially cool when we ignore how this totally normalizes using people.

    Two primary lovers then can choose to take other lovers. If someone is uncomfortable with their partner being on the make all the time, obviously they are selfish. And if the extras develop feelings, “sorry — I’m already taken”. My “primary” emotional space is filled, but I wouldn’t mind using you for my own selfish vanity.

    I guess when guys fuck other women while their wives are pregnant are just more enlightened. And 55-year-old dudes who want to live a little are just free-minded. Their uptight wives with children are just nags. They should have fun too! Right?

    The grotesque narcissism, selfishness and emotional shallowness of the poly crowd, who speak little of amor and lots about their need to have no hinderance turn love into something that’s consumed. It’s just middle class shittiness dressed up in libertarian drag.

  11. February 22, 2011 10:43 am

    First off, I want to say thank you for the lovely post title–you have such a quirky way with words.

    It sounds to me like all y’all are experiencing both the joy and difficulties that being in relationships can bring (poly or not), and you’re all doing it consciously (or trying to!), which is inspiring.

    I would encourage Ryan to seek out other folks who tend toward monogamy but who are partnered with nonmonogamous folks–there are all kinds of groups out there where specific concerns that arise around this stuff come up. I also recommend checking out Tristan Taormino’s book: Opening Up. It’s got so much interesting, good information in it, and lots of examples of different ways folks can “be” nonmonogamous. And one last recommendation: That both you and Ryan try to cultivate friendships with some people who are nonmonogamous in whatever ways: You can have the most understanding and open friends in the world, and still sometimes it helps to talk to folks who have “been through it”.

    Also, I would echo some others here, and note that stuff like compersion comes more easily for some than for others–but that once you touch compersion, it’s such a great feeling. In addition, my ability to feel compersion, and my tendency toward jealousy/possessiveness/etc. can vary from person to person, and in relation to the other people involved.

  12. February 22, 2011 11:15 am

    Thanks for the props folks, appreciate the sympathetic responses given how weird it feels to have this stuff out on the internet…..Kloncke of course asked me first tho, so it’s all good with me from the privacy angle.

    The publicness and privacy line really limit discussion of our concrete situation in important ways because most of the key feelings involved are very particular to the people and relationships happening between the three of us, and would probably be a lot different (or even absent) if the particularities were different.

    For instance, I don’t really feel like commodification or possessiveness are really at play with us, even though it seems like they are in a lot of relationships…..but interestingly without these dynamics existing, or at least with weak versions, there are still conflicts! And while it seems like there are many heterosexual men whose romantic/sexual practice is based on conquest and getting their own needs met, my issues are very opposite, and have more to do with learning to value my own needs enough to try to get them met at all.

    To move out of my personal psychology back into the (less emotional) level of abstraction, I’ve been thinking for a while, even before this process, of how much to “a priori” (meaning before considering its concrete form) value polyamory. I’ll assume that we all agree that heterosexist patriarchy represses any sexuality other than straight monogamy (although that repression is variable by gender, class, race) and must be overcome through many forms of struggle. Does that necessarily mean that chosen monogamy is lesser, unnatural or inherently damaging to human relationships? It often seems to me to be a linear hierarchy (as in Nella Lou’s post, or kloncke’s comment about it) where compersion reflects a more advanced orientation, greater emotional maturity.

    But sometimes it seems more relativistic to me, where exclusive partnership is one of many relationship options, and deciding between it and for instance primary +secondary partners or primary partner + casual lovers etc. etc. is similar to any decision about what sort of relationship you want with whom.

    Point is: is wanting to be in an exclusive partnership different than wanting to be with someone who only sleeps with one secondary partner, or wanting to be with someone who only has casual lovers etc.? Are all of these equally emotionally underdeveloped because their commonality is having a preference about your partner’s romantic relationships with others, or is wanting exclusive partnership particularly underdeveloped?

    I’m really curious about people’s vague summaries of their personal experiences with this…..i.e. for instance Sycorax, Crunch, Nella Lou all seem to value polyamory really highly… this because (like me) it seems to be a good idea or because you’ve had net positive experiences with polyamorous relationships? I’ve actually never heard a positive story about a polyamorous partnership after talking to a few polyamorous people, and would be hella interested (and encouraged) to hear about folks’ experiences, and happy to learn from negative ones too.

  13. February 22, 2011 11:27 am

    I, for one, don’t see either monogamous or open relationships as inherently more valuable than the other(s). It is true that happy poly relationships require a level of self-understanding and communication that some happy mono relationships don’t require, I think–or, put slightly more negatively, you can go on “autopilot” more easily in mono relationships (partly because they are sanctioned by the larger culture, partly because there are fewer people involved). But I know folks who have incredibly rich, loving and mindful mono relationships, and folks who have poly relationships that are similarly wonderful.

    I also like viewing mono/poly as on a continuum, similar to the kinsey continuum of sexual preference, rather than as a strict dichotomy. Anybody who is “mono” who also has close friends has something *like* a polyamorous relationship, for instance, and lots of “poly” people embrace strict hierarchies of primary/secondary/etc.

    As far as positive poly experiences, that’s another reason I’d recommend Toarmino’s Opening Up. Lots of happy stories in there (she interviewed lots of folks).

  14. Sycorax permalink
    February 22, 2011 11:57 am

    Hey Ryan! Thanks for your response. And yours too Katie!

    To quickly answer before I get back to work–
    Rereading my post, I think I didn’t make my position too clear.
    Here it is- basically, I think if we read history we can see that social morals and values arise in relation to how that society organizes family and couplehood. Historically, the idea of monogamous romantic love being the basis of a long-term life-long relationship, is extremely new, and very particular to a period of time associated to capitalist industrialism.

    All around the world, almost as a rule, marriage was never seen as an institution dictated by love. Most societies saw love as extremely dangerous to marriage, as marriage was an institution that coordinated property and helped create familial cooperation across tribes. It seems that for most of human history love relationships and marriage have been separate institutions.

    The Greek philosophers, for example, believed you could only find love outside of marriage since they thought that love could only exist between equals (and men couldn’t marry men though they could have romantic friendships with one another and often did). Its also been well documented that throughout history where there HAS been some kind of formal ceremonial thing around love partnerships, it was also part of the logic that these partnerships dissolved and converged easily. In native american communities, people came into relationships on the basic of love and left when they soured, and the community attached no stigma to this. Native Americans, as many indigenous peoples around the world, were forced by European colonialism to take up the morality of puritanical marriage. I remember this book I read on Romance and Marriage in the U.S. said that when the settlers got to North America they tried to force the natives into monogamous marriage and the natives said why? The Europeans told them it was important for inheritance purposes. The Native Americans said, you Europeans, you love only your own children, we love all the children of our tribe.

    If you look at most places in the world, there is also a phenomenon wherein industrialization and the introduction of wage-labour leads to the idea of individual love-based marriages versus community organized marriages. The ideology of romantic love being a way to self-actualize is very deeply rooted HISTORICALLY and materially in the rise of wage-labor, as people leave their families, enter productive relations in the workplace and then seek to find one person on which they can raise a family in. It usually signifies a breakup of community and a dissolution of ties one;s community.

    All this to say that it doesn’t mean monogamous relationships are capitalist and bad. I do think however that we should not forget that our values are deeply tied to the social organization of our society. The fact is that we are brought up in a society where two generations back (that means great/grandparents time) women were literally the property of their husbands. Romantic monogamous love the way it is construed in our society still has that spirit imbued in it. I think capitalist spirit is also imbued in ideology around monogamous love because it is judgemental and punishing of any deviance from the couple. It teaches us to see one another as our property, and to thus seek to want to control that person’s feelings through our attachment to them. Why deny the fact that attractions arise? To safeguard the feelings of our partners? I am not saying we have to act on every impulse we have or every desire we have, but I think lieing to ourselves is another practice that is deeply embedded in our society and learning to be honest with each other about our existing feelings while staying within a committed loving relationship, is what polyamory is all about. I don’t know I am rambling. But I think that too often people in monogamous relationships turn themselves off from the people around them. Why not imagine that we can love and be attracted to and respect and enjoy the company of many people around us? Why do we have to feel ashamed of that and judgemental towards ourselves and other people who do have those feelings? I think the harshness of the judgement that comes to people who engage in that kind of practice is testament to how dangerous the idea of de-privatizing that kind of love, intimacy and connection, is to society. Especially to men, who get taught that they can only be emotional and intimate when there is sex involved, or with women. How many men in couple relationships also have deep intimate relationships with other women and men around them? Relationships in which they can be loving in? Maybe people our age are starting to get more of that, but many men a bit older than us grew up being told only their wives could meet their needs in that way. I think the more we break open the idea of privatized intimacy –deep spiritual and emotional connection only being possible with one person at a time, the more we get away from thinking based on -scarcity- a capitalist concept. If I give to someone else, it means that the person I am with in a relationship is bad now. That is what I mean when I talk about possessiveness and control. I think most people who are possessive and controlling or jealous are ALSO dealing with feelings of inadequacy, needing to feel wanted and intrinsically valuable. Its hard to not feel threatened and perhaps rejected and not worthy of love when someone you love is talking to someone else, and especially if you are a man and you are socialized to think that your manhood is contingent on having sole access to YOUR woman’s sexuality.

    I think thats what Crunch is talking about when he says you should get props. If I could count the statistics that show how many men kill women who they suspect are cheating on them, we could talk about how powerful the masculine imperative is to control a woman’s sexuality, to have it privatized. Even the male response to rape (which across the board is usually to want to kill the men rapists) is conditioned by the idea that being a man means protecting women from the sexual advances of other men. A woman being sexually available to one man is not only ideologically present but HISTORICALLY has been the IRON clad law. Being loving and accepting towards Katie is a powerful challenge to patriarchy when in most places around the world (including here up until a couple decades ago) you basically had the right to kill your wife for being unfaithful. It was never the case that you could kill your husband. Think about that. Our social relations don’t exist in a vacuum…

  15. Sycorax permalink
    February 22, 2011 12:16 pm

    I talk about marriage – because long-term monogamous relationships are so much modeled after traditional marriage (expected to be exclusively between two people, permanent, fusion of reproductive sex and love, sanctioning of sex outside of marriage)

  16. Sylvia Sturges (age 63) permalink
    February 22, 2011 2:30 pm

    Dear Ryan and Katie: From what you write, it appears that you both are ready to “date” others and end your “relationship.” Trust is such an important part of a relationship. I’ve not known anyone in my 63 years who could trust a partner knowing that he or she was seeing someone else. I think it is fine if one chooses to have a number of lovers, but why try to have a “relationship” with someone while you are still dating others. Plus, the scheduling of having more than one lover must be very complicated…how does one have time to oneself, pursue one’s interests and career goals, and have fun? Just seems very messy emotionally to me. Aunt Sylvia (long time Feminist)

  17. February 22, 2011 3:45 pm

    @jeffliveshere, thank you so much for pointing out those resources for mixed mono/poly relationships. Hadn’t even occurred to me! Just a brief bit of poking around online has already reassured me a lot, helped to normalize much of what I’m feeling, and given me some new, helpful ways to think about our particular situation. (For instance, some of the terms Ryan and I have been considering seem similar to a “veto power” setup, which is useful to be able to name.) Really, thanks a ton.

    Leora, I can’t wait for you to be here. Can not wait. You inspire and uplift me like woah.

    Sylvia, thanks for your concern, and I appreciate where you’re coming from. I agree with you 1000% that trust is key to any healthy loving relationship, and luckily, trust is not something that Ryan and I are lacking together at all.

    Ryan, as always, thank you for being such a clear-sighted and compassionate presence here, as well as offline. From what i can see so far, there are conflicting reasonable views (even among active poly folks) on whether polyamory is inherently ‘better’ or not, and whether or not it is more ‘advanced’ to have no preferences for configurations, nor boundaries about what your partner(s) do romantically with others.

    It helps me so much to be able to think and work through these things with you, privately and in community. You ask the best questions.

    Love you madly,


  18. ngotorious permalink
    February 22, 2011 4:28 pm

    Relationship orientation is much more complex, I think, than either or. I think of relationship orientation as the integration of sexual orientation, gender identity, and also the spectrum of monogamy-polyamory.

    I should qualify that I’ve concluded for myself that monogamy is one component of my orientation. And although, once upon a time, I tried my earnest to be in an open relationship, it in the end fell apart in a very painful way–I think for both of us in different ways.

    Problems with likert-esque scales aside, it makes me wonder if there isn’t a kinsey scale equivalent for monogamy-polyamory. I used to shy away from conversations around poly relationships because I felt judged inferior for gravitating towards monogamy… but in retrospect I think that was more a reflection of where I was emotionally at the time.

    I do agree with the above comments in that relationships do not exist in isolation and that there are many social/cultural normative pressures–even as simple as being single. How many times has a single person been celebrated for “just” being single? Probably less often than the instances in which they start a new relationship–new relationships receive much positive reinforcement. And so to that extent, I definitely think the way we express ourselves in relationships is another form of resistance, as long as we are truthful with ourselves about what we want (that is, if we know what that truth is).

    But that’s just my two cents. From your initial post and Ryan’s comment, I think it’s more a sharing on your part to open this conversation with the rest of us. You both approach each other with such patience and kindness, so the rest will find where it fits.

  19. burned permalink
    February 23, 2011 6:18 am

    I’ve participated in communities of poly folks and been in several poly relationships. I was very inspired by the idea of it, but in practice I’m coming away from the experience quite jaded. All the relationships around me that I was using as models of thriving non-monogamous relationships fell out of alignment at some point and separated. I thought that perhaps my own disfunctional relationships were a failing of my ability to evolve my heart and practice non-attachment, but the truth is I don’t think it worked for me or anyone else I know.

  20. leorasf permalink
    February 23, 2011 9:35 am

    Katie &all — I think it would be interesting to look at this article alongside this discussion (NYTimes: The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women – . Obviously there are huge places where they diverge, but I’m also interested in where there might be related themes; especially on what boundaries we make/unmake ourselves, when and how, and historically when/how that can continue to happen…

  21. nathan permalink
    February 23, 2011 2:34 pm

    I waited to respond on this post because it’s such a fascinating conversation, and also I’m not sure where I stand on many of the issues raised. I have had connection with a few folks who were part of poly relationships that seemed to function fairly well, so I know it’s possible. But I’d also say what Burned writes sounds more common. People say they can handle it, and then a year, two years later, when they have been bumped down in the interest order, all hell breaks loose. I don’t even think that monogamy is inherently the better option for everyone. I’d agree there’s probably a spectrum of some sort in terms of locating healthy relationships on.

    I will say that I have never, myself, been a part of a poly relationship. What I know comes from witnessing friends and others negotiate the territory.

    That said, there are plenty of other issues worth considering. Perhaps the emphasis on decades long, life life partnerships as the only route is not only oppressive in terms of those who want something else, but is also oppressive towards those whose long term partnerships “fail.” What is the lifespan of a fulfilling relationship? Does a “successful relationship” have to be the one that lasts?

    I can think of two shorter term relationships that, in hindsight really were great just as they were. And perhaps would have grown really not so great had they gone on for years or decades.

    So maybe the longevity question is something to take a deeper look at.

    The point ngotorious makes about the lack of support and celebration of happy singles is a good one as well. I have a good friend who spent years talking to others about the negative views of singles. Being single herself most of that time, she greatly questioned the acting upon desperation and other feelings that led people around her to hook up and try and stay together, even when both were totally miserable. I’d say it’s an act of resistance to remain single when you feel fulfilled as a single person at that time, because usually remaining single is considered a sign of failure.

    The points about men being socialized to not have intimate platonic friendships once partnered, or to limit much of their vulnerability to their spouse, is also pretty accurate. I look at my father and step mother’s relationship and can see the damages that has caused. Whereas she has both friends and close family members to help her work through issues, my father is mostly isolated. My sister and I offer some support for him when he’s challenged, but almost all of his friendships faded years ago – many of them men who also got sucked into the same paradigm. This is changing, I think, in my generation (late Gen X) and younger, but there is still some stuff to deal with there for us guys.

  22. teresa Willis permalink
    February 24, 2011 6:44 am

    I applaud your ability to be honest at this level. I don’t know anything about your topic.
    What I have learned in my life though is there is a reason a person becomes an ex.
    Once the `romance’ period is over again, we tend to remember that reason.

  23. girlwonder permalink
    February 26, 2011 1:36 pm

    Hi Katie,

    Wow, are the stars aligned! I’m at the public library this very moment getting some needed space from my partner, who I love to pieces.

    Last week, I branched out on my own for the first time in our 2 years together. While we have claimed to be non-monogamous from the beginning (meaning we had the freedom to be with others at any time), our fear of hurting one another or being left kept us from taking the plunge. We have talked this subject to death, read the books, agreed to “rules” when we decided to be with others, fantasized in the sack about others, and opted to branch out when things were going stellar with us so it was an enhancement to what we already had, not because something was lacking. But this didn’t make it easier. It felt odd to touch a new body, new penis, new lips. And this fellow was really passionate and it was super exciting, at times more exciting than my sex life with my partner… all things that are positive but that were unexpected. My partner had met this fellow and that’s where the comparisons began. I didn’t want to sleep with his clone, I yearned for something very different and went purely for attractiveness (naught but hot!). I should also say that this occasion didn’t happen unexpectedly. My partner had asked not be caught off guard like that. So at his request, he met the fellow for drinks and the night we slept together, we made sure my partner had a good support system around him of friends to hang with and distract him (rather than sitting at home stewing about it).

    This all happened a week ago and since then, it’s been tense. He feels sad like he doesn’t compare. I haven’t wanted to be sexual with him very frequently since then as it feels odd or wrong (like I cheated when I didn’t). It’s very foreign feeling. I know he might “pull the trigger” at any times and sleep with someone out of revenge. And while our strength is communication and holding each other through the uncomfortableness (like I nurtured him with baths, candles, massages and rubbed his head while he cried from the hurt… not mad at me, just hurt, even though he agreed it was right for us both), right now is tense and we both are more shut down than usual. There’s this transactional part of me that feels like what I deal is just not such a big deal. Then I put myself in his shoes and it’s such a pivotal moment and my gut hurts. Sensing we both need some space, solace, and silence, I headed out of the house for a bit today. And I will be there to hold him quietly when I get home.

    I should not that what’s worked really well for us was being with other people together. Foursomes with other couples have been a fabulous segway where I found my insecurities lessened, my curiosities fulfilled and compersion at it’s finest. But with threesomes, it’s been rough as well as the energy has been off with the other lover of the same sex. However, through all these bumps I think we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we tried to be monogamous. It hasn’t fared well in the past for either of us (we just end of cheating on our partners) and we firmly believe that you can be committed and non-monogamous. And committed doesn’t mean being confined. I don’t regret being with someone else. I get off thinking about it still and feel very free, even though my heart breaks for my partner. But I know that this is the worst of it. And the same for when he sleeps with someone else too. And for myself, I am working on building myself up… my confidence, my body, and taking care of myself so when the time comes that he has another lover, I won’t be such an insecure, sad mess comparing myself to her. I want this to be empowering for us both and at the end of the day, I have a choice as to how I respond so I’m trying to be proactive about it. We are finding that sometimes our plans for how to minimize our reactions and feelings aren’t always what’s best for us and we adjust accordingly. The unfortunate part is that with this trial and error method, there is a bit of heart ache involved.

    So I don’t have a magical solution for you but really appreciate that you are also trying to navigate through a similar situation. Please keep in touch since we are far and few between and could really learn from one another :) Be well.

  24. Huli permalink
    February 27, 2011 8:47 am

    I’m in a 23-year-long-so-far family relationship with my partner. We have raised two kids together and have been through about as much joy and pain together as you can imagine. I specify “family relationship” because that’s central to what I have to say about this.

    First off, it’s important for me to say a couple of things: I am only talking about what works for us; everybody’s different, and I’m glad for that. Also, my partner and I are best friends, and I think that’s a big reason why we have stayed so strong for so many years.

    I don’t want to share private details, but I will say that several years into our partnership, we sought advice and did some very deep soul-searching about whether non-monogamy was a good idea for us. We decided it wasn’t.

    I think the advice that had the most impact on me personally was what one woman said about how once you become amorous with someone outside the primary relationship, there’s a good chance that new attachment can become incredibly powerful and draw you and your attention away from the primary relationship.

    That may have been a perfectly fine risk to take at some points in my life, but as someone who had made a conscious choice with a partner to become a family and bring children into the world and raise them together, it was no longer a risk I was willing to take. There are some things in life, frankly, that are more important to me than the excitement of a sexual encounter with someone besides my partner. The welfare of my family is one of them.

    This does not mean that my partner and I have to be “everything” to each other. We just reserve a certain type of intimacy for expression with each other, in the context of our family life.

    I’m glad that others on this thread have made the observation that choosing monogamy does not mean that a person simply isn’t “mature” enough to handle polyamory. There are very, very good reasons and justifications for both choices.

  25. February 27, 2011 1:11 pm

    Just want to say I’ve been so moved and grateful to all of you who’ve shared your experiences, stories, and wisdom here. (girlwonder, your words are so beautiful and resonate with me on many levels. thank you, and i hope you enjoyed and benefited from taking that space yesterday. i’m rooting for you two! :))

    Huli, having seen some of your wonderful relationship and family firsthand, I gotta say I’m glad you and your partner are going strong together. Y’all inspire me! I’m happy that you made conscious decisions that worked for you and what you wanted. At the same time, within this discussion I feel a need to note that it is possible to raise children, and raise them well, within a polyamorous relationship. I’m in no way saying that that’s what you should have done, or what people in general should do, or that it’s without its drawbacks and difficulties or maybe even impossibilities, depending on the particular situation, but only that it can be done, people have done it, and are doing it, in what appear to be healthy and joyful ways.

    Thanks again, to everybody. This thread has become really special to me.



  26. Huli permalink
    February 27, 2011 3:23 pm


    I want to affirm what you say above. Absolutely, healthy families can take all kinds of forms. I hope what I wrote didn’t imply anything different.

    At the same time, I think it’s important to note that monogamous relationships can be really healthy and fulfilling – even if they are encouraged in our capitalist society for unhealthy reasons.

  27. February 27, 2011 3:47 pm

    Yes, I am totally with you — sorry if I read something out of your post that wasn’t there. I figured that this is what you meant, but wanted to kind of clearly state my own position because I worried that someone else reading this

    There are some things in life, frankly, that are more important to me than the excitement of a sexual encounter with someone besides my partner. The welfare of my family is one of them.

    might imply that people who choose polyamory are choosing it over the welfare of their family, as opposed to choosing it as part of promoting that welfare. Does that make sense? Wish I’d put it a little better, slash just expressed my confusion and asked you to elaborate on what you meant. But yeah, good parenting — poly, mono, single, extended-family — and/or choosing not to parent, yay. :)

  28. JOMO permalink
    March 20, 2011 12:00 pm

    thanks for being so courageous w sharing this stuff here.
    i respect y’alls continual processing and internalizing liberatory principles into your relationships, and to people around you.
    i dont think the skills and art of building healthy relationships are very often talked about and kloncke, you reference that in your previous post about your relationship w ryan being a good relationship.
    this is something i wanna think about. if we say revolutionary theory and practice is something to be desired and learned, then we should also apply that dedication to the very substance of the new society — building new social relations. that shit requires skills and training not. it doesnt come automatically. they need to be integrated into one another.
    anyways, its been a minute since i visited your blog and as usual am so impressed and inspired:)
    take care!

  29. March 21, 2011 5:29 pm

    JOMO! thanks so much, yo. I think about you a lot, and hope you’re well. Seeing your comment also reminded me that I e-mailed myself a link to your latest, freaking wonderful blog post — and reading it, I see so much overlap, and am so thankful to you for your online writing and reflections. This part especially resonates, I think, with what you say above:

    3) Talking about anti-patriarchal and gender politics in an organization means that our own personal sex lives and intimate relationships become exposed to the org life.

    People feel protective about their personal relationships and dont want the organization to intrude and make harsh judgements.

    Worst case scenario is that it could be that people have fucked up patriarchal intimate relationships, but it could also be that organizations do not have the vocab to differentiate patriarchal relationships from unhealthy relationships or moments of tension and challenges in otherwise healthy relationships.

    Many political spaces I have been in, dont have the precision in their language in discussing patriarchal relationships that exhibit power and control, both in hetero and queer relationships.

    Part of this is because we dont even have the vocab to talk about what good, healthy relationships are.

    In our response against imperialist feminism, or the state’s attacks on our culture as a pretext to demean, denigrate and provide justification for its attacks on communities of color, many leftists have responded with some sort of cultural relativism and hesitancy to talk about the good, the desirable, in a normative way.

    The NW Network, an anti-DV organization for and by queer and trans folk, has a relationship skills class that they offer for free to the public. The space, which I have encountered, is one that in non-judgmental, but also one that does provide vocabulary and concepts for individuals to talk about what healthy relationship skills are: such as communication, establishing boundaries, changing levels of commitment, response to jealousy…etc

    I would love to check out a class like that and learn more about the skills it helps develop. What you say about silencing the positive relationship talk out of fear of falsely universalizing a certain style rings really true for me.

    A good example for me is what I call “fake fighting.” It’s the kind of affectionate teasing that a lot of lovers or friends might do with each other: i.e. “God, way to take up all the closet space with your hundred pairs of lace-up boots…” Mocking-like. Now, me, I basically have a boundary against fake fighting in relationships because it seems to verge too close to actual passive aggression, and that’s not a road I care to go down. When Ryan and I first got together, he accepted the “no fake fighting” rule out of respect for me, even though he affectionately fake fights with friends a lot, and really enjoys it. Over time, though, he’s come to appreciate and even prefer the rule in our relationship context. You can see how it just eliminates the worry that the person really, deep-down kinda means it when they’re griping, or ragging on you. But for other people and/or partners, fake fighting might be okay: a net-good type of bonding. Similarly, I almost never yell during arguments, and I wouldn’t want to be with someone else who yells, but for others it might not feel particularly bad or scary (obviously depending on how it’s done)?

    I imagine that folks who offer these classes are well-studied in a variety of communication styles that take into account people’s different personalities, preferences, cultural contexts, class backgrounds, etc. Much of the useful stuff I’ve encountered, relationship-skills-wise, is a core of solid content surrounded by highly white-centric and/or middle-class assumptions. So I’d like to check out more of that radical literature and practice.

    Anyway, sort of a ramble, but thanks for stopping by, and thanks again for your dope blog! You take care, too.

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