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

22 July, 2009

Relational Tinkertoys

One of the previous posts got into discussing fiddly bits of constructing relationship systems and how one looks at them and so on, and so I've been chewing on that. Which I've also been chewing on in terms of this CFS for kinked relationships in a polyamorous context, which I'd like to write something for if I only had a brain. (Or a diploma.)

And there are bazillions of things talking about terminology out there, and some of them even get it mostly not wrong for how it works in the wild (the number of sites that talk about "primary/secondary" or "heirarchical polyamory" under the notion that people only ever have one primary-typed relationship is gargantuan), and none of them are actually all that useful, as far as I can tell. (And this is getting all crossed-up in my head with an old post I just read from someone who left me a comment on 'what's the difference between "bedroom kink" and "24/7", anyway?' so that may wind up in this ramble.)

So. Relationships. Structures.

One of the things that I think drives a lot of people's responses is the way that the model of what a relationship is like is sort of presented as monolithic. He and she become they and we know it's right and true because they get married and live happily ever after gazing into each other's eyes. And there are variations along the way, but this is the thing that I saw presented as the Correct Model - heterosexuality, marriage, starry-eyed monogamy, fairy tale ending. All the ingredients.

And of course there were little cracks in that obvious from the beginning: in my youngest years it was the knowledge that divorce happened. Then an awareness of homosexuality. By the time I was fourteen or so I could comment that I figured there were people who were monogamous and people who weren't, and the ones who weren't should let people know so that people wouldn't get hurt. (At fourteen, all this obvious shit is simple ...)

But a lot of what I saw was ... still tending back towards the Correct Model. He and she become they transforms into he and he become they. The divorced woman finds the one who's actually the right one, and we know it's right and true because they get married and live happily ever after, etc. All sort of edging towards not being different, even if there were a couple of cosmetic things not in accord with the Model; trying to minimise the ways in which people varied, relationships varied, and so on.

And I think this makes it hard for people who venture into non-normative relationships, because the shape of the Correct Model casts a long, long shadow. Some people luck into areas or subcultures that give them models that work better - or get stuck with a choice between the normative models and the subcultural normative models, neither of which works for them. And some people have to rattle around a lot and figure out which bits work for them and which don't, and sometimes, well, this hurts. So people have scars.

That looks tangential to the question of relationship structures and how people go about things, but it isn't, really. Because all of this is part of the cultural stew that people are steeping in when they go about their relationships, and even being consciously aware of some of it and what it does doesn't mean that one's got it all down and sorted. And some of it is something specific people like, and some isn't.

So that's all backdrop.

If you frame some of the wrong questions in terms of the backdrop, you can see some of how they get asked. Only one relationship fully exists in reality; that relationship is arranged with cohabitation, mutual sexual interest, long-term commitment, and all that stuff that's part of the Serious Package; other relationships (if they exist) are more trivial, flighty things, maybe focused on addressing desires that the real relationship cannot satisfy, like kink, sex with a same-sex partner, the nebulous thing called 'variety', the 'I don't think it's healthy to expect my needs to be met by one person', etc.

And this is what the default model of A Polyamorous Relationship is.

Me, I say that I don't have any polyamorous relationships. Because for the relationship to be such by my standards, there would have to be more than two people in it. And I can't figure out how to make that work, so I don't try to do it; all my relationships are dyadic. (I'm not attracted to groups of people; I'm attracted to specific individual ones. So that's how I conduct things.) So I don't add people to relationships or have to balance things in a relationship or whatever; all of that stuff is system-level, which a lot of people don't recognise as an important distinction in the first place! (World on a slant strikes again.)

And only doing dyadic relationships simplifies some things. Some people like and prefer the one big relationship model, and more power to 'em. They're doing something I can't, for sure, and I don't know how they manage it. I note that they exist, but decline to comment further on grounds that I'm incompetent to do so.

But what goes into a dyadic relationship in a poly system? Obviously, one scraps the "And if I ever find myself attracted to anyone other than you, clearly our relationship has failed and is defective in some way" part that crops up in some implementations of the normative model, if one's having other relationships at all. Though some people have agreements and preferences that can look like that from funny angles, that include things like "Don't love anyone else", "Don't have sex with anyone else" ('sex' being variously defined), "Don't have a serious relationship with anyone else"... all of which I've seen work for some people, provided adequate term-defining.

But there are other nuances. I know people for whom the critical part of polyamory is that they be able to have another relationship if they decide they want to. And in a fair few of those cases, when they have that option, they don't actually have any desire to start another relationship. In other cases, the critical thing is the ability to have and have acknowledged attractions without any necessary follow-through (or maybe no more than a cuddle or what have you), and that satisfies all emotional requirements the poly person might have. And on the other end of things, I know people who don't want to miss out on an opportunity or turn down a potential, and a few kind of messed-up people who seem to think that saying "No" or not being interested in a new relationship now is proof that one isn't really polyamorous at all.

I know of relationships in poly systems that are pretty much vehicles for sexual release, relationships in poly systems that have no sexual activity or desire for same, and pretty much anything in between the two. When my liege and I started our relationship, as I believe I've mentioned, we were shooting for something like friends-with-benefits or a probably long-term fling - turning our established friendship into a friendship that happened to include fucking on occasion, more or less. (That notion didn't last terribly long.) Some people have agreements for looser rules on business trips, conventions, and other prime sources of fling time, too; not all relationships are long-term.

And speaking of long-term, one of those questions that comes up is "How often do relationships like this fail?" Which amused me for a while, because there was a string of people asking me this question in a time frame where I'd recently had a successful relationship come to a conclusion (it was done, and we didn't drag it out too badly) and another relationship that was in a state of continual slow failure not quite energetic enough to cease. But the model for 'failure' was about 'ending' - and often any change in a relationship system was called "ending", so the fact that, say, I'd been with one partner for a decade didn't matter if I broke up with someone else in the interim. Success in a relationship depends on the relationship, not the duration - and not whether the relationship is ongoing, either.

I think one of the things that I'm finding as I burble along semicoherently is that, well, a lot of things are up for negotiation and discussion. In a lot of ways, this is a really scary part: instead of there being a simple, straightforward, and above all known pattern for what a relationship is like (insert digression here), all this other stuff is in question, like what it means for a relationship to succeed, the meaning of fidelity (literally keeping your promises and commitments), who is involved, to what extent, how many ....

Digression: The single thing I've seen cause the most drama in poly relationship setups is the quesiton of who owns the time. There are people who figure that being in a relationship means that all their unspecified time is spent With Partner; there are people who specify time With Partner and figure that their unspecified time is theirs, though it will often also be spent With Partner. When these two types of people get into relationships, there's often a lot of low-grade sense that there's something off here. When these two types of people start up in a poly situation, the drama explodes all over the place and the shrapnel is killer. Those 'of course we know what the rules are for relationships' assumptions bite and the wounds bleed - and they still bite in a monogamous situation, but the damage often feels less acute because people are generally perceived as more threatening to relationships than ... well, all the other stuff that a partner might be doing. (End digression.)

One of the big standing-wave flamewars in poly groups is the concept of heirarchy and, more importantly, what heirarchy means. If anything. (Some people just let it be, if it is, and I appreciate that, being inclined that way myself aside from an obvious tendency towards overanalysis.)

Some people don't do heirarchy. They have their partners, those relationships are what they are, and that's that.

Some people don't do heirarchy. They have their partners, those relationships are what they are, and that's that. They also have the other people they're in some way involved with, who may be romantic friendships, or sex buddies, or whatever else.

Some people do heirarchy. They have their primary partner, and everyone else is required to be of less importance. Often, there is some sort of control that the primary partner has over other relationships, such as the ability to veto. Sometimes called 'prescriptive heirarchy' (as opposed to 'descriptive heirarchy').

Some people do heirarchy. They have their primary partner, and don't have any particular interest in having that sort of relationship with anyone else, but they also have other relationships, romantic, sexual, and both, of lesser centrality to their lives.

Some people do heirarchy. They have their primary partners and other partners by whatever standards and particulars suit the people involved.

Some people do heirarchy, with a tidy sequence of succession such that if one relationship goes away, everything lower than it moves up a rank. Or something. I've never been able to parse this one, and it pretty much never happens in the real world so much as in people's fantasies about how this all works, so it doesn't matter much.

A primary relationship may or may not be a close match to a mainstream-normal real relationship. Various factors that some people have insisted are essential to primary partner-ness have been marriage or other commitment ceremony, cohabitation, sex, shared finances, shared responsibilities, power to control other relationships, the ability to trump commitments to others with desired time (even in non-emergency situations), there can be only one Highlander-ness, um, probably some other stuff. The rules that any given primary relationship run under are probably only known to the participants, though they may well think that it's obvious and all clear-thinking folks will agree.

A secondary (or tertiary, as we carry on down the line) relationship is one that does not contain all the traits that someone thinks of as necessary for a primary relationship. What that actually means in practice is fuck-all with a side order of 'this is a distinction we think necessary to make'. Some people treat this category of relationships as disposable fun-toys. I think those people need to be smacked with a haddock.

Some people get all tangled up in sex and romance and which is more important or if they're all the same thing. And my feeling on sex and romance is that they're different things, and some people can have one without the other, and some people have the two tangled together, and that's life and among the zillions of things that people can be varietable about. Same thing with kink and sex and romance, for that matter. I can have romantic love without sexual attraction but not sex without romantic entanglement; some people can do sex without love/romance/whatever. Life is complicated. That's fine.

Digression two, since I don't think it'll ever be sequitur. 24/7 kink vs. bedroom kink? For me, in my fulltime kinked relationship, it's always there. I'm 24/7 d/s like I'm 24/7 married, y'know? It's always a factor in my life and my calculations and my interactions with people, especially, y'know, the relevant person. My bedroom kink with my other primary partner is ... he's kinky, I'm kinky, sometimes we're kinky in similar directions, it's not a part of our relationship per se (I think we'd both like it if it were a little more so, but it doesn't work out that way), it's just a thing that we do sometimes. And it's not like we stop being kinky people when we're not in-scene or whatever, it's just that it's not a defining trait of our interactions - it may be a defining trait of our selves, but that's a different locus. End digression.

Some people make up abominable unwords like "sexualove" and "compersion", meanwhile, and expect other people to appreciate the brilliance of their ugly jargon. At least one of those has a functional etymology and merely sounds stupid, rather than like a disease symptom.

Some people think their whatever makes them far superior to all of those peons who are still monogamous or who are doing their poly thing differently. These people also need to be smacked with a haddock.

Ugh, I'm sure I had more to say when I started but since this has now been written over something like a half-week full of gaps and staring into space I've lost a fair fraction of it.

But I think that should illustrate, more or less, why I get frustrated when I'm doing my wee activist thing (over a decade of answering questions about polyamory and counting, but not very precisely) and, after explaining what my life is like, get the response, "So the people I met before who [hurt|upset|confused] me are doing it wrong?" (This has happened more than once.)

No. They're just doing it not like me.


MP said...

Thanks, D, it's definitely making me think about how I treat my current partners, and is helping me understand the POV of the one I don't live with.

Continue with making my head work out in other ways, you great person!

violet said...

I liked this post. I named my partners "primary" and "dominant" because it feels right, but also because those terms are and they aren't pleasingly contradictory.

For a long while I was reluctant to use the phrase "my dominant," because it conveys a false idea of possession, rather than suggesting "the person who is dominant in relation to me" which is what I'd prefer, but it's just far too wordy.

I really like your term, liege. It's beautiful.

Orlando C. said...

That was awesome. I think over the years my chief beef with polyfolks has been what I percieved as a tendency towards dogmatism. In all different directions, but with similar fervor. This article undoes that for me in a really beautiful way.


lightcastle said...

Dear lord that was a good read.

Got bounced here from someone's LJ, and was delighted to read a world of good sense.