Wes and I have big plans to write a book about relationships someday. We were at a wedding in October and we planned out the structure and such on a set of cocktail napkins like real classy writers. Jessie, Shaun and Ginny will likely contribute to it as well, so this blog is starting to feel like a book in training.
The structure of the book will take into account Wes’ and my strengths as writers. Wes is analytical and straight to the point. I am a meandering storyteller who likes the art of the personal essay. I like to show how my own history has led to a particular understanding of the world. In the book, Wes will present explanations of our philosophies and I will talk about how these philosophies are applied in our lives. That way, it’s not just people spouting off about how things should be with no practical application. We can show how we actually live and incorporate these ideas into reality. Our philosophies about relationships are not simply lofty ideals. They are things we thought about and then tested, again and again, and found them to be true for us.
Polyamory with a dose of skepticism properly applied.
So, today I want to talk about rules. Specifically I want to address the points made in Wes’ recent post, Polyamory Isn’t All About You. The post garnered quite a bit of attention and sparked a bit of controversy. It was for good reason as he was presenting some pretty matter of fact ideas that thoroughly challenge the traditional ideals behind relationships. I, of course, didn’t really see what he was saying as particularly shocking because this general philosophy has guided the structuring of our relationship, even before polyamory. After pondering what he said and the response that it received, I thought it would be helpful and hopefully interesting to our readers to see how these ideas presented themselves in real life.
Wes and I have been together for 8 years and were monogamous for 5 years of it. We were dating for only a few months before deciding that we wanted to live together. It didn’t take particularly long for us to know that we wanted to spend our lives together. Marriage was spoken about very early on and honestly, we were basically married (in terms of the level of commitment we had to each other) for almost all of the relationship. People were shocked when we got together for some reason (a lot of people didn’t know Wes very well and really didn’t know me very well either and they made a lot of assumptions about who each of us were and had lots of opinions about how we shouldn’t be compatible), but soon it became clear that we are incredibly compatible. Like whoa. In the beginning of relationships you measure compatibility by the amount of interests you have in common, the kind of food you like, music, art, whatever. The things you like are a superficial way to first see compatibility (and a lot of people likely put too much stock in these things) and having a lot of these types of things in common makes the getting to know each other part of new relationships fun and generally easier. Wes and I share a love of The Who and Styx and have compatible senses of humor and like a fabulous steak and cheap wine and…well, I could go on.
But these are not the things that led us to marriage. Sure, they helped. It is certainly reasonable to want to have a life partner who is fun to spend time with. In fact, I don’t really understand the number of relationships with this bizarre “We don’t really like hanging out together” thing. It’s that kind of attitude that leads to the hilarious “War of the Sexes” and such (note: I don’t find this hilarious. I find it tiresome and boring and wish that it wasn’t such a favorite topic of media), but that’s a whole other post. So yes, Wes and I have a wonderful time together but beyond that there is a deep and profound compatibility between us that comes from sharing a similar world view, a similar outlook on the way the world is and the way it should be. We are open-minded, inquisitive, skeptical, and both committed to personal growth and improvement.
These are the things that allow us to grow and evolve as a couple. These are the things that allowed us to commit to the likelihood of “Forever”. A common question we get about our choice to become polyamorous (and often with a good bit of venom behind it) is, “Well, why even get married if you’re going to live like that? It sounds like you just want to have everything and screw around.” The answer is that we got married because we are completely and utterly interwoven into the fabric that makes up who we each are. I cannot imagine a life without him. I cannot imagine being old and decrepit and not having him right there with me. We committed to having a life together long before we chose to be non-monogamous. Having the legal recognition allows us to easily proceed into big life things like taxes, house buying, car buying, health insurance needing, important decision making. When we committed to each other, we committed to wanting to be able to do these things together. It’s as simple as that.
To talk about rules though, I think we need to start back before we introduced non-monogamy into our lives.
I used to be an incredibly negative person. I used to be a jealous person. Both of these things can rear their ugly heads in many instances that have nothing at all to do with a partner looking at someone else. For example, one time Wes told me, “Ooh, guess what! I have the day off tomorrow!” I did not have the day off and I felt jealous that he got a day at home and I didn’t. My response was then, “Huh, I wish I had the day off”. Wes looked at me and said, “You should be happy for me, not jealous.” The conversation was more complex than that, but it introduced a very important idea behind healthy longevity of relationships. Relationships should not be transactional. If something good happens for your partner, there is no guarantee that the same will happen for you at the same time. Instead of wanting what your partner has and feeling bitter that you don’t have it (envy) or thinking that you somehow deserve it more and should have it instead of them (jealousy), you should simply be happy that your partner is happy. This is an ideal existence.
This ended up being one of the most important conversations in my life. It was so simple and about something so minor, but it illuminated a dark thing about me…a dark thing that I did not want to be part of me anymore. It had never occurred to me how something so simple could be so damaging. But when you think like this, it can so easily lead to resentment, which leads to unhealthiness in the relationship. Resentment, much like insecurity, starts as a little seed in your mind and we all have a tendency to tend the growth of these things instead of nipping them in the bud. Committing to nipping them (with self-introspection and a lot of communicating) is, in my opinion, a key to a happy, healthy relationship.
It was at this point that I started my own Happiness Project (based on a wonderful book and blog by Gretchen Rubin) and started to change my outlook on life. She helped me to see the great number of things in everyday life that I allowed to bother me. I learned to take control of my negativity and can honestly say that now, a couple of years later, I am a much more positive person. Very little gets me down for long periods of time and when something does, I have the mental tools to process it healthily.
It was around this time also that Wes and I decided to open up our relationship. As such, it was at this time that I also learned just how deep my jealousy and insecurities ran. There were times when things were simply horrible. I would have awful jealousy trips and in my mind I would wonder whether I was cut out for it. But here’s the thing: Wes and I agree that if at any time either of us doesn’t want to do this anymore, we will stop.
I take this INCREDIBLY seriously. That is the trump card to end all trump cards. When I say this I mean that once this card is played, there’s really no going back. And the reason I feel that there is no going back for Wes and me is that if I decided that that I was simply incapable of working through issues, that Wes’ happiness was not worth enough to get over my insecurities and misconceptions, that simply giving up was preferable to honest and open communication, then there would have been something deeply wrong with our relationship itself. Polyamory would be impossible for us if we were not so very compatible and so very committed to each other.
Even at my darkest moments processing through this, I could never bring myself to play the card. I knew that the issues we were having were entirely about me and the problems in my head. You can disagree. You can say that somehow Wes was responsible or that poly was responsible but you would be 100% wrong.
Because I had made the decision in the beginning that the trump card would not be played (unless something monumental happened, which as I said above would likely be a bigger problem in the relationship than poly could ever be), it was important for me to envision the endgame. I had to assume that Wes would meet someone that he would want to have an equivalent relationship with as he has with me. I had to assume that there could be someone who would be in our lives in this capacity as forever. (Yes, I thought about it at the times in terms that I would likely not have a serious relationship…I was apparently quite wrong about that!) Why? Because I couldn’t imagine denying him the happiness of finding someone wonderful. When I thought about the idea of specific rules of attachment, I couldn’t come up with anything that sounded reasonable. Sometimes I would come up with something that sounded good in my head and then I would actually say the words. When I would finish the sentence, I would say, “Um, that’s dumb. Nevermind.”
The idea of rules came up before we even talked about non-monogamy. Wes started law school and made all these new friends and he wanted to hang out with them (as people do). I had to be up for work early during the week, so I didn’t go out much with them. Wes would often close the bar with them and wouldn’t get home until 3am. I had two types of emotions about this. First, I was jealous that he got to do this all the time. The other was that I would worry if he was alright. One of these is reasonable. The other is not. I was letting the jealousy get out of hand and I said, “I want you home by 3am”. I gave him a curfew (barf). I thought that by knowing that he would be home by then, I could sleep better. What happened? I would stay up until 3am waiting for him. I was still unable to sleep.
We talked about it and I admitted the failure of this particular decree. After discussing the idea that Wes hanging out with his friends when I choose not to and then getting upset about it is stupid (I definitely got over that), I realized that I simply want to know when he’s heading home or if he’s going to be out later than usual or whatever. I want to know if I should be calling the police. I want to know that he’s alright and having a good time. The solution was simple: Shoot me a text when you’re heading home or when your plans changed. Just keep me informed.
He started doing that and we both do that today and nobody worries. Once I knew he would do that, I could sleep and was happy that he was out having a good time and I was happy to be able to go to sleep knowing I wasn’t keeping him from something he wanted to do just because I was being insecure and negative.
When the subject of rules came up about our non-monogamous practices, as I said, I just couldn’t come up with anything. It didn’t make sense to me to make rules that would inevitably be broken. I knew that we, being human and passionate, would likely form major attachments to people we chose to date outside our relationship. To attempt to put limitations on that is unrealistic for us. “You can have sex with other people, but you can’t fall in love with them.” Yeah, I’m sure that works out well all of the time. For me, it was all or nothing. The endgame. If we are at the point that we want to explore other relationships, we are at the point that we could potentially find other highly satisfying and amazing relationships. Why on Earth would I want to limit that possibility?
Wes’ post seems to say that we don’t have rules, but that isn’t true. We have three major rules (or really, guidelines): Be safe. Be smart. Be considerate.
These rules cover a whole array of decent human behavior. These rules indicate that we trust the other to be considerate of the other person’s needs and to not be a jackass. And if we happen to be a jackass, the jackassery is to be communicated immediately and worked through.
When we were first open, I had a lot of insecurity about Wes finding someone who was infinitely better for him than me. I saw myself as deeply flawed and that Wes would get tired of dealing with all my bullshit, especially if he found someone without it (ha, right?). What he told me was that he knew all of this about me when he fell in love with me and that it would take me becoming a completely different person for him to want to leave me. This is how we feel about rules. For either of us to break these three guidelines in an egregious way to warrant termination of the relationship would take either of us becoming completely different and ultimately completely incompatible people. It would mean a break in our collective philosophical mind so great that we barely knew each other anymore.
To this end I will tell you a little story. One time very early in my relationship with Shaun, he and I broke a rule that we each had in place with Wes and Ginny (for the sake of transparency, yes, it was the condom rule). It seemed like a fine idea at the time, but then we both realized that we had done something wrong, that we had violated trust and felt terrible about it. So, we both immediately told Wes and Ginny and Jessie. They weren’t particularly happy with us, but we talked about it and though tensions were a little high for a while (mostly in my own mind. I felt like a Grade A Asshole for quite a while and no one is quite as good at punishing me as I am myself), we got through it without any breakups or true terribleness. Instead, I think it showed us all that while, yes, we are clearly imperfect, we could admit to our mistakes (there is really no other reasonable choice) and showed that though we made a mistake, it was not a mistake that we were proud of and cared very much for the other people that would be affected.
These are what “rules” mean for us. We acknowledge that mistakes happen and we work through them if they occur. In the realm of consideration, we all acknowledge that it is highly possible that we will hurt one another. It is impossible not to do this once in a while. Being considerate means considering how your choices might affect another and then weighing the pros and cons of getting what you want verses hurting someone else. It is impossible to give everyone what they want all of the time. In the course of a life with someone or many someones, you will be bothered by things the others do but you have to think about why these things bother you and whether it is something they need to change or something that you need to change about yourself. This is how relationships evolve and grow together, instead of breaking apart. When you are truly mutually committed to each other and each other’s happiness, it is imperative that you also commit to communicating your ideas, wants and needs, and also to making your household into an atmosphere of growth.
This is why those three guidelines are sufficient for us as things specifically stated. Be safe, be smart and be considerate. When specific scenarios arise, we talk about them, figure out our common ground and adjust as needed and, as a result, we learn more about each other and grow.
Certainly polyamory seems quite complicated, but it doesn’t really feel that way to me. It feels no more complicated than any slice of any day on Planet Earth. When you are at the point in your hierarchy of needs, life in and of itself takes on an amazing complexity. We are always learning. There is always room for improvement. Perfect is asymptotic but fun to think about.
In the end, love has no rules and incorporating more of it into a life requires thought and consideration and much work, but oh, is it ever worth it.