So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

17 July, 2009

Asking the Wrong Questions

One of the things that I find most difficult to deal with are the wrong questions that people ask me (or ask in my vicinity). Things where ... in order to really answer that question, I have to dig back into the assumptions that make the question possible in order to point out that they're misapplied, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. And people are resistant to having their axioms argued with, a lot of the time, and reject, mock, dismiss, or otherwise just fail to adjust to actual encounters with reality.

One of the places this gets particularly egregious is around subject of polyamory. Everyone has their vision of what someone like me's life is like, and very few of these visions have even a passing relationship with reality. I mean, it's a running joke in some poly circles that the universal response to being tagged as someone polyamorous is, "Do you all sleep in the same bed?", which is, of course, a veiled enquiry about the target's sex life.

But try to take that apart, and you have not only the sex-centric nature of the question, the invasion of personal space required to immediately leap to asking a veiled question about sex, but more fundamental things like the assumption that 'you all' actually means something.

Taking apart 'you all'? There's the One Big Relationship notion, some sort of Stranger In a Strange Land collective mishmash. Probably with transitive relationships, in which my partners are presumed to be partnered to each other in some fashion, in order to form this magical 'you all'. And who's in and who's not? And ...

... and my husbands have another wife, and I'm not married to her or romantically involved with her, and is she a part of my 'you all' like we're in the same family unit? Is my long-distance partner, with whom I do not have a sexual relationship in any case, part of this entity known as 'you all', despite neither of my husbands having met him? How about my [legal] husband's long-distance partner and her husband - my ex (who has met my long-distance partner) - and their local poly family grouping, are they part of 'you all' despite being three thousand miles away and the posited bed being somewhat implausible by the laws of physics by this point? What is this 'you all', where are its boundaries, what does it mean?

I have three romantic relationships. Two of them are marriages. For the situations in which sharing a bed comes up as a relevant concept, all the people in the relationship share the bed. The value of 'you all' that actually has some bearing on reality is 'two', for which the scope for prurient investigation into the strange lives of other people rather fails on the 'strange' point.

I'm sure from that the astute reader can figure out some of where "How did you find someone to add to your marriage?" falls down, too. And I don't even have to go into the bit where I start jumping up and down and shouting about how people are not marriage accessories and why the fuck would I want to be munged onto someone else's relationship rather than having one of my own thankyouverymuch.

Though the rant would be a segue into "How do you share your partner?" where I either want to jump up and down and shout about how my partners are not my property to dole out or store in a trunk because I failed at kindergarten playtime or fume about how, no, actually, I'm not sharing a damn thing, my relationships are mine (and the relevant partner's) and someone who wants a piece of that can get their interloping arse kicked for 'em. They want a relationship with one of my partners, they can build their own rather than trying to cadge a piece of mine.

One of my favorites is "Why do you put up with that?" because I'm the one who refuses to consider monogamy. So I'm left with, "I'm ... putting up with ... being treated like someone who has input in her relationships? The problem is?" Of course, under this question is the sexist notion that women are intrinsically monogamous and men just want to fuck around and so any sort of open, poly, or nonmonogamous structure is for the benefit of teh menz and leaves teh wimminz suffering and alone and certainly never suggesting something like, "Why don't you go spend the day with your other wife because I can't stand having humans within about twenty feet of me right now?"

This is related to "What happened to you that you don't feel you deserve someone all to yourself?" Which I have been asked, in so many words, though it may have been a rhetorical question. And to which I could get nasty about the 'all to yourself' and the overwhelmingly broken social construct that one's romantic partner is the be-all and end-all of one's social interaction, but I don't generally bother, because I'm too busy wanting to snap people's heads off over their imaginary abuse wank fantasies.

"Why isn't one person able to meet your needs?" takes the nexus of presumed damage out of my past and plonks it in my current psyche, inventing some sort of greedy defective with a checklist of requirements, looking for other human beings to fill the niches created by projected deficiencies in each partner. There is one person able to meet my needs; me. Projecting that onto other people does not strike me as healthy. I'm not poly because I have 'needs' in excess of others'; I'm poly because my 'ooh, that person is shiny' meter shuts down at two serious relationships rather than one and I'm happier under those circumstances. (And I also learned - by painful experience - how to parse more subtle forms of shiny and fondness.) Related questions: "Why isn't your partner enough?", "What's wrong with your relationship?"

Or, "How can you think of bringing children into such an environment?", which mostly leaves me wondering what's wrong with a loving, stable family situation in which everyone is more or less supported in their sanity and emotional stability needs, work is well-distributed among the family members with reasonable flexibility, and people are happy with each other. I'm pretty sure that this is one of those really intensely veiled sex questions, predicated on parade-of-lovers and soap-opera drama, but I'm generally not interested in breaking my intrinsic boringness for long enough to dig that deep.

I seem to have gotten off on a run of the really annoying ones, rather than the just silly, which is unfortunate, but they do remind me of each other a lot so I suppose it's to be expected. Ah well. I think I've covered most of "What do you think this adds to your marriage?" before, aside from the whole, y'know, not having the single-relationship-plus-others model in the first place and not pursuing relationships for spicing.

And nobody comes right out and asks me how often I have sex, so I can't disabuse them of their notions of vast orgiastic parties every evening. I'm pretty sure my imaginary self gets laid a whole lot more than I do, and in much more exciting ways. I'm okay with that.

(Then there are the 'questions people don't ask but probably should instead of just running on the assumption that they know the answer', like, "Are you hitting on me?", "Are you into casual sex?", "Are you bisexual?", "Are you looking for someone new right now?", "Are you trying to convince me that I should open my marriage?" Sigh. I mean, some of the comments that come in on that are just plain intended to be nasty - the one I remember was full of how clearly emotionally unstable I had to be to be 'sleeping with all of these different people'.)

The whole illusory assumption thing is wearying, really. It's hard to be funny about it in the long run, just because of being imaginary all the time. It'd be nice to have a bottomless well of funny to throw at some of this stuff, but instead I have a bottomless pit of aggravation, occasionally leavened with funny.


Orlando C. said...

In the future, this will all be simplified. Our iPhone implants will broadcast a little list of our bullshit assumptions to everyone within range, before we start having a conversation. Or run screaming...

Tirani said...

Thank you for this.

I often have to deal with the same questions, and you made me laugh with some of these responses.


Janet said...

It's not the only topic that draws the really nutty questions out of the woodwork, but it's a good example. Thanks for this....

Ranat said...

The examples you give really go to show how the diversity of expression of polyamory and non-monogamy can get completely ignored. Maybe to some people 'polyamory' implies one relationship form, rather than being an umbrella term for an infinite number of forms.

Seraph said...

I have to say, thank you, for posts like this.

Your generosity in posting your thoughts on things like poly relationships, kink, and pagan faiths has helped me form clearer ideas of how to interact with people who practice them irl--what questions not to ask, what assumptions are particularly unfair, etc.

So really, thanks. I learn a lot from your blog.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Ranat - I think to a lot of people they're figuring on one form, though ... a lot of them aren't in agreement about what that form actually is, if you look at what they say.

I'm always amused when I run into polyfolks who are all, "Heirarchical polyamory is proof that some people haven't gotten over their monogamous upbringing and are still carrying legacy code!" (more or less). My problem with legacy code wasn't 'there is only one real relationship', it was 'all relationships end in marriage' - so I fixed it with heirarchy.

Seraph - I'm glad that I'm handing out useful perspective. I hope that it's mostly, "People do it different, y'know", but part of the point in writing from my own little slanted world is to ... there's a reason one of my tags is 'visibility'.

Wow, that was a broken set of sentences.

Ranat said...

@Dw3t - Hierarchy as in the primary, secondary, tertiary relationships model of polyamory? So for you, differences in your relationships are marked by whether they're marriages? I'm interested in this legacy code concept. Is this a term that gets batted about or is it yours?

Dw3t-Hthr said...

"Legacy code" is me being a giant nerd - it's the stuff that was written for the version of the program that was released four years ago and nobody's removed, which may or may not be why it's crashing in this version.

So every self-righteous poly person who's going on about how people haven't "overcome their social indoctrination towards monogamy" is basically, in my version of nerdspeak, complaining about other people's legacy code.

One of the forms of this that I've seen come up is complaining about primary/secondary stuff in terms of "people who have their primary couple relationship and relegate everything to second-class status", in which the complainers who talk about 'not overcoming social indoctrination' are saying that the couple with their exclusive agreements on whatever they make their primary-ness out of hasn't overcome indoctrination-into-monogamy and needs to.

When I was young and fucking things up, one of my problems was that every relationship I had had to turn into a Very Serious Relationship Like Marriage And Everything. I broke a few that way, some pretty badly. When I finally said, "Okay, I'm going to do something different here" and basically reinvented the concept of secondary relationships for myself - and thus developed heirarchy - I stopped breaking things by trying to force them into this faux-egalitarian model that doesn't actually work for all relationships.

Ranat said...

I think egalitarianism is another place where many people have a lot of misconceptions. Because in most egalitarian societies, someone who was an expert in, say, gathering asparagus, would have more influence in the gathering of asparagus than other people. In another season, when processing acorns was more relevant, the person who knew the most about that would have more influence. Egalitarianism (in practice rather than definition) isn't the same as equality; it's a shifting flow of influence and prominence, with its own checks and balances.

I also just get really annoyed with the idea that a relationship categorized differently (for instance a relationship considered less permanent, with less time shared) is somehow 'less' than a more permanent relationship with more time shared. The fact that the first is transitory can be just as valuable and precious as the permanence of the second.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Exactly. My secondary relationship is good as it is, it doesn't need to be translated into a form where it doesn't work in the name of "egalitarianism". It is right and correct and good and not some sort of second-class thing just because it's not the sort of relationship that has the happily-ever-after fairy tale shit in it (though now I want to take that notion and throw it into one of our collaborative projects just for the hell of it).

Tiger Spot said...

Not in the context "Do you all sleep in the same bed", but for "you all" in general, this is my datapoint:

When I'm counting "you all", I tend to count the five of us locals in one layer, and then you and your husbands and their wife in a second, sort of cousin-like layer outside that for a total of nine. I don't count your secondary partner unless I'm using dotted lines.

I am fine with "you all" meaning the five of us, but it bugs me when people say it and mean the three of us that live together because that's not all. There's an exception for clear living-together-related contexts, though, because then it's a meaningful grouping again.

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Anonymous said...

I can't believe people make such rude comments! I have only ever wondered how one can deal with the stress/nervousness of starting a new relationship with an added layer of "is X going to freak out when I ask if he/she is interested?" if you want to start something with someone more or less outside of poly social circles. That must be nerve-wracking.

Orlando: I am reminded of Lois McMaster Bujold's books, in which citizens of the planet Beta wear earrings designating their "status"-
"single, uninterested,"
"single, seeking male for long term",
"in a relationship, not looking" "in a relationship, looking for short term with male/female/hermaphrodite" etc.