OK, I’m going to date myself here, in the 1962 musical “The Music Man”, a young Shirley Jones sang a song of her desire to find the kind of man she could love, and one line has stuck with me for all these years, “And I would like him to be more interested in me than he’s in himself and more interested in us than in me” OK, it’s better with her beautiful voice. But the point is well made and very much needed in this discussion about polynormitivity and relationship hierarchies.
There is a debate in the evolving polyamory about whether polyamory is to be publicly identified as couples who have other emotionally committed relationships with other couples and singles; or is it to be publicly seen as a free flowing network of individuals. In a recent blog discussion on this, the different writers seems to implicitly assume, but not spell out, what they personally want out of their relationships should be the norm. The word coined was polynormitivity. The debate is framed as hierarchical v. non-hierarchal polyamory. Hierarchical polyamory places a higher “primary” value on some relationships (i.e. people with whom you live or to whom you are married); and lesser “secondary” value on those with whom you do not share domestic unions. As part of this debate is how primary relationship often establish rules so as to favor and preserve that primary relationship.
As a matter of disclosure I am not neutral in this debate. My wife and I are very much of the hierarchal school of thought and we explicitly state to all people we date that the good of our marriage comes first and foremost. When we counsel couples trying out open marriage for the first time, we emphasize that point as critical.
As with all subjects, the ends must dictate the means. So when the poly community gets all wrapped up in a debate over rules and primary and secondary relationships, but don’t agree upon why we have intimate relationships, it’s like debating the best roads to take without agreeing on what city we are trying to drive to.
In the song I referenced, she is expressing a life of commitment to mutual welfare is of paramount importance, trumping the partner’s individual needs and wants. That may strike some as belonging to an oppressive world of the past and that such a priority is antithetical to polyamory. I beg to differ. I would suggest that not only is it not dead, it is the only form of polyamory that will make it to the mainstream.
Oh, I hear the screams now!
I did not say such a model is monogamous, what I said was the mutual welfare is of paramount importance, trumping partner’s individual needs and wants. There could be two partners, or there or more, but the members all agree the welfare of the group superseded that of the individual. Thus in the language of this discussion, all members of the group are primary relationships and all relationships outside the committed group are secondary.
One writer on this subject spelled out clearly that in all his relationships, his needs came first. OK, he has spelled out his priority; he sees relationships with himself in the center of all. But he will not be able to maintain a long term, mutually respectful interdependent relationship and keep that priority. Yes, I said that as an imperative. The self-first approach will not succeed in such a relationship; either the relationship will be exploitive of the partner(s) or it will dissolve. All egalitarian interdependent relationships demand the giving up of some one’s needs and wants.
Now, do all people who are poly have to want such an interdependent relationship? Certainly not. There are people who are fine going through their entire life with an ever changing landscape of relationships. For them there is no need to prioritize primary and secondary relationships. But, such people who continue to live this way into middle adulthood are unusual. Humans are by nature social and have a nesting instinct. Nearly all people come to value such relationships in time, as they move through life, even if they do not do so in as young adults.
Another writer made an excellent point about the abuse of “secondary’s”. She wrote “If anyone, the primaries are happy getting different pussy on the side and are the ones writing Pollyannaish articles about how if you’re not happy You’re Doing It Wrong and are probably being selfish and jealous or not letting the love flow and other such bullshit.” Her feelings of being used for sex reveal the dark potential for abuse guised as openness in the poly community in the exact same way as it is in the larger “serial-monogamy” community.
It is not however, as she suggests, her problem that she feels misused. Rather the couple with whom she is sleeping holds that responsibility. They are either just claiming poly to use her for sex (which is immoral) or failing to understand and meet her relationship needs. To pretend it is easy to be ethically poly is not to understand either poly or ethics. In our 16 years of open marriage, only once has my wife had a “secondary” who either did not have a primary, or was a male who did not want an interdependent relationship. And, that one did not turn out well. My one relationship where I had a “secondary” was (is) with a woman I’ve known for 30 years, and we have been very close for decades. When her monogamous marriage ended, we had some sexually involvement (she is not local) until she entered a new monogamous relationship. We no longer are sexual, but are still close and I couldn’t be happier for her. She wishes her new love were open to poly, but he is not, such is the trade-offs in life; however, she has repeatedly thanked me for being there for her when she needed me and thanked my wife for letting me be there. To me, that is how to ethically work out polyamory within a hierarchal system; our existing relationship was founded on the understandings of our mutual commitments to our marriages, when her marriage ended, sex with her was a supportive addition to our existing relationship. The whole while, though, we both knew she was looking for a new primary relationship, and if her current boyfriend were open, she and I would have continued to be sexual on occasion as her “secondary” and she as my “secondary”.
Thus, to defend my belief that the future of polyamory as a social movement depends on those people who form stable mutually supportive relationships; dare I use the words family and marriage?
I propose that if polyamory is to be accepted as a legitimate, socially constructive alternative to monogamy, there will have to be some polynormitivity. The question is who will articulate a vision of polynormitivity that does not look like what was presented by ShowTime? Such a vision can’t be just a hippy dippy narcissistic, “I’m in it just for me” statement. Society, by definition, is made up of nesters, and such as view is a threat to stability with no benefit to the whole, so we need to show how polyamory can be part of an interdependent society. We must convince Mr. Mainstream and Mrs. Hometown, that if their spouse is working beside a poly, that their marriages are not in danger. We can’t do that if we claim that their marriage is no more valuable than the relationship my wife has with the new man she has just began dating last week. I would suggest support of hierarchical l relationships (and marriage) would go a long way to doing this.
This is is why I believe, the venue for the public face of poly should be a public fight for legally binding marriage of more than two people. Sure there are lots of polys with no interest in marriage for themselves, as there are many in the gay and lesbian community who have no interest in marriage, but support the legal recognition of such marriages to signals they are part of the mainstream.
Thus, I end where I began, what do you believe is the end game of your polyamourous relationships? If love (and sex) are an ends in themselves of all of your relationships, that’s well and good; but, are you projecting that narrow view onto others in this discussion when you condemn relationship hierarchy? And if we claim to be seeking social acceptance our embrace of “many loves”, we cannot be seen as anarchist seeking to destroy bedrock social systems.