It was perhaps a dozen years ago at a heated polyamory discussion dinner. There was a flirtatious communard who was known to be in a long-term committed relationship and their partner was quite jealous of their attractions outside their established relationship. One side of our divided conversation were people who believed that the responsibility for caring for that relationship was on the shared flirtatious partner. It was on this person to know, respect and communicate any agreements or boundaries the pre-existing relationship placed on the new connection. The other position was that it was good poly practice to communicate directly with your intimate’s other partners, especially if they are known to be jealous, so no one is surprised, everyone is on the same page and the new affair does not have an acidic effect on the existing romance. The group that was advocating for direct inquiry of the jealous partner was the older demographic at the table. I will call this group the Old Guard.
And there was kind of a “guardian” feeling to this concern. Poly is an ambitious relationship model. You are assuming that you can do better than upbringing. That you can transcend the perhaps 30% of all pop songs which promote exclusive romantic role models, or the 50% of soap operas which play off jealousy as a central theme. Not only do you have to be better, but the people you are playing with are going to have to be above average in their response to potentially highly charged emotional circumstances.
Remember the classical trajectory of new intimacies. They start with honeymoons. During this period we tend to be in significant denial about there being any flaws to our new partners. They are wonderful, their feet don’t stink, they treat you like you really deserve to be treated. And while you are wearing these rose colored glasses the existing (in this case jealous) partner can be completely reasonably worried that you would want to spend all your time with this shiny new relationship, rather than the grumpy old one with demanding attention, needing processing and not very fun.
Everyone in the old guard claimed to be not just taking care of the other partner, they were also taking care of the notion of polyamory being a responsible and sustainable relationship model. While it might be fun to jump on a discovered attraction at a party, the clean up can be a nightmare.
The young Turks thought differently (they were mostly 20-something so the label seemed apt at the time). We are adults, we are responsible for our relationships. If someone says they are romantically available to play it is untrusting and perhaps even insulting to say, “oh i have to go make sure i have permission from your main squeeze.” The young Turks thought they were being mature and respectful, the old guard thought the Turks represented the wild, wild west of intimacy frontiers. And while i have my own opinion, i can fully see why both sides believe theirs is a fair and reasonable position.
I am happy that there is again a polyamory discussion group at Twin Oaks, which Sky started up again. It happens on Tuesdays at dinner.
Shal who was at this polyamory dinner so long ago and thinks deeply about these issues had this to say about guards and Turks.
I understand the perspective of assuming new flame can be responsible for their own situation, but we know that is not always how it turns out. After all, the shared lover is looking at the situation with rose colored glasses too.
I agree with the reasons you speak of to be checking in with established intimates of a new flame. And there are some reasons that you did not mention why I think it is wise to be considerate of other partners of a new lover or potential lover. If the topic comes up at the new poly dinner I will mention these.It is not just about whether one gets the ok to start the relationship or not. There are many situations in life when one is more likely to feel ok with a change if one is asked first rather than the change being made without asking. I think this is also true of new relationships with one’s partner. If the other intimate of a new flame is asked nicely, and especially if co is assured co’s situation will be considered and cared about in the decisions made in the future (if that is true), co is more likely to feel ok with the proposed new relationship. And then the new relationship is more likely to go well. So I see such an approach as a wise mix of altruism and self-interest.
Also when in such a situation I would want my new lover’s life to go well, not just when co is with me but also in broader ways. And if co’s current relationship blows up it would cause much unhappiness to this person I care a lot about. So checking in with partners’ partners is not just caring for and about the other intimate one is checking in with, it is also and more importantly caring for and about the person one is getting emotionally involved with.I call such an approach “cooperative poly”.
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
Aubby was excited. She and Sara are starting a womens polyamory discussion group and even the formulating steps have her animated. “It makes you look at these questions like jealousy and ones relationships to your lovers other lovers in a deeper way, which you would not have to in monogamous relationships.”
If you want to build a new culture, you definitely need some new language.
In the world of open relationships (aka polyamory) there are different words used for different configurations and different roles. One of the more discussed relationship models is a configuration where there is a dominant relationship in which one or both of the partners have other smaller relationships.
Conversationally, these relationships are often called “primary” which is a term that i think very often has a meaning, but people often bristle when i tell them what my definition of a primary polyamorous relationship is:
In the event that all the lovers can not come to consensus around some issue, it is the primary relationship which will be deferred to.
From my perspective there are a number of problems with this type of definition, including that it can rewards bad behavior. If you are in the primary relationship and you dont want to deal with some new partner, you can simply block and likely will get your way.
The alternative term (that i use) for especially significant relationships in a polyamory context is central.
A central relationship is one where the partners are planning the important decisions of their lives around each other.
This does not mean that they are planning to do everything together. It does mean that if you are making any biggish life decision the input and counsel of your central lover will factor into your process. It also means (unlike the primary) you can have more than one central relationship (as i do) assuming you are willing to do that amount of processing work.
With Open Hands: A short handbook on Open Relationships