My high-school boyfriend liked the song "Love the One You're With" by Crosby Stills & Nash.
"If you can't be with the one you love, honey,
Love the one you're with"
(Dee de dee de dee de dee dee ...)
I hated that song.
Not that I was particularly stuck on monogamy. I just didn't think sleeping around should be talked about, I suppose. Or I didn't think someone should sleep around on me. At sixteen, I dreamed about what kind of life I would have when I was old enough to make my own choices. I decided I would live in a city, alone, and have lots of lovers. Before we left for colleges in different states, my boyfriend said to me, "Keep in practice."
For me, multiple relationships weren't a political thing, or a philosophical thing, or a spiritual thing. They were a physical and emotional comfort. I loved sex. For one thing, sex was the only way I got physical contact, since the reserved Northern Midwest culture I came from included little cuddling or touching among friends or relatives.
Sex made me feel free and powerful and desirable. And if I got to the point of having sex with someone, I was able to relax with that person in a way that I couldn't around most people.
I was looking for a serious relationship, but I kept missing the mark, and in the meantime it didn't really occur to me that I oughtn't maintain several friendly-sex relationships. Sometimes it seemed weird that I had never broken up with some of my lovers, but there it was.
So from my teens through my mid-twenties, I practiced open relationships of a sort. But I still believed monogamy was part of the ultimate goal of having a serious partnership with someone. I thought being seriously involved with more than one person in the same area would be pretty messy. Multiple relationships made sense only if one's lovers were far away, or if the relationships weren't particularly serious.
For years these beliefs were never put to the test, because few of my relationships included both sex and romance -- they tended to have either one or the other. I had long-distance fuck-buddies and gay male friends whom I loved but never slept with.
When I did get into "serious relationships," in which my partner and I both became monogamous pretty much without discussion, because we figured that's what you were supposed to do. Oh, sometimes I wondered at what point monogamy was supposed to kick in. There was the time I had a week-long blind date that looked like it was going to turn into a relationship, and the following week I flew off to Florida to visit a long-standing lover. In that case, nonrefundable airfares answered my question. But in general I thought that once a relationship was established as serious, it was monogamous until you broke up, although sometimes you might overlap lovers a bit.
Perhaps because I'd had a lot of experience with non-sexual romantic relationships, I never chafed in monogamous relationships. I'd get interested in other people, but I acted on my interests in ways that didn't threaten my monogamous relationship. Or at least that was the theory.
What really happened: The guy I was living with became very jealous of a male friend of mine in whom I had little interest, while remaining blithely ignorant of my massive crush on a female co-worker. I would have left him for her if I'd had the slightest encouragement. (I didn't.)
I didn't know how to handle Freddy's jealousy. (Note: All names have been changed except mine and my primary partner's.) It didn't make sense to me because I wasn't "doing anything" with my friend (no sex or physical contact, other than the occasional hug). So I mostly tried to ignore his jealousy. But it got worse and worse, and eventually Freddy got to the point of throwing a tantrum if he heard my friend's name. It seemed the only way to resolve the jealousy was to stop seeing my friend. That was too much for me, and I used it as a lever to leave the relationship.
I saw no one for a while, then I spent a year casually dating a lot of people, many of whom I met on the Internet. I learned a lot, but none of these relationships went anywhere. And on my thirtieth birthday, a new voice inside my head began nagging me to get moving toward the goal of marriage and children. This was an unpleasant surprise, since I'd never felt a strong urge in that direction before. But I was getting tired of dating and tired of long-distance 'net relationships.
I met a local guy named Aahz, and we began seeing each other. At first it was supposed to be just friendly, even though he spent the night and we (sort of) had sex. So I played it cool, but I really liked him. I would lie in bed at night, in my San Francisco house that I shared with my cat, and sternly remind myself that I couldn't get serious about him because of our religious differences. At parties I watched him give backrubs to other women, and I felt jealous but I stifled it. He wasn't mine, and the jealousy was just the same offended longing I always felt when I saw other people touching casually, because I wanted to be able to do that but didn't know how.
We began to fall in love. I first noticed it on a Sunday morning, walking arm in arm with him down the hill to West Portal Avenue. He was teasing me and I felt beamy and comfortable. I usually hate being teased, so I knew that if I liked his teasing, there was something special going on. But we didn't talk about it at first, and we didn't know much about each other's lives beyond the time that we spent alone together.
Then Aahz invited me to my first real science fiction convention.
Aahz has a special way of being at a science fiction convention: he throws cuddle parties. People can come into his room and share backrubs and hugs to their hearts' content. (And often they did more than that as the weekend progressed and people built bigger and bigger sleep deficits.)
I have a special way of being in any group of people: I try to fix myself to someone to avoid feeling awkward and alone in the crowd. Aahz's party was the kind I longed most for and also felt most confused by: friendly cuddling, few rules other than to respect "No", feeling welcome. Aahz and I were clearly together as a couple...or were we? Often I looked up to see him giving a backrub to somebody I didn't know. I cringe when I think about some of the things I did at that party -- reaching out to people without finding out who they were and who else was in their lives. But I made friends and lovers that way. I suppose there are lessons to be learned there -- plunge in anyway when you feel unsure of what to do; there's room for all sorts of people; people are more forgiving than you give them credit for sometimes.
I'm an introvert. Crowds make me tired. And this was a crowd that went on for 72 hours, filled with all sorts of things that scared me -- casual touching, mingling, drunkenness, sleep deprivation. Still, by the end of it, I felt thrilled and excited; I felt I'd found a place where I belonged. And I was doubly thrilled when some of the connections I'd made looked like they might blossom into relationships.
After the con, Aahz and I began to consider ourselves "officially" a couple. We had been seen together at the con; someone had apologized to Aahz for kissing me (!); and we had said "I love you" to each other (as well as engaging in other private celebrations). It was great to have a local sweetie at last, but at the same time, things began to feel a little more awkward. For example, the issue of "When does monogamy kick in?" raised its head. I had scheduled a visit from my high-school boyfriend (with whom I'd been lovers for all these years). I wasn't sure how Aahz would feel about my seeing him. But I felt that I had to ask him, since I believed that was part of what couples do.
Another issue was my interest in BDSM (kinky sex). I knew some people who were interested in exploring it with me. But Aahz wasn't particularly interested. So I wondered whether I should tie myself down to him (so to speak).
And then there was Sam. I'd had my eye on him for a couple of years, but I'd been too shy to do anything about it. At the con, he had noticed me for the first time. I wanted to pursue things farther, but I didn't feel that I could do that -- certainly not without asking Aahz.
In short, there were several reasons why monogamy might not be a good idea right now. I wondered how to tell Aahz, wondered if it would be OK with him. It didn't occur to me to wonder whether he wanted to be monogamous.
I'm a "thinking" sort of person, and I sometimes wear alarmingly large emotional blinders. Sometimes I get myself into situations that are more emotionally charged than I realize. Such was the case when Aahz and I planned to visit Toronto. I talked my net pal Carl into driving across from Buffalo with his partner, Tammy. Since they were on a budget, we arranged for them to share our hotel room.
Carl and I had a crush on each other, but I didn't have plans to do anything about it, and so I didn't talk about it with Aahz. Meanwhile, Aahz thought that Carl and I were planning to start something. And Carl didn't talk to Tammy much about what was going on, either, but she knew he was interested in swinging.
Here's what seemed to happen in each of our minds once we got together:
AAHZ: Well, I'd better let Carl and Stef get to know each other, so I'll find something of my own to do. [Begins giving Tammy a backrub.]
TAMMY: Aahz is touching me. I guess we're doing swinging/swapping. [Begins kissing Aahz.]
CARL [looking at Stef]: Oh boy!
STEF [seeing Tammy and Aahz wrapped up in each other]: *jealous nausea*
Aahz and Tammy go to bed together and Carl and I go to bed together. In the middle of the night:
AAHZ: I had better get a condom in case Tammy wants to have sex.Repeat the next day -- Tammy and Stef play together also, but discomfort remains.
STEF [lying next to Carl, feeling nauseated and trying to sleep, hears the rustle of a condom wrapper from the other bed]: Well shit! If Aahz is going to have sex with Tammy, I'm jolly well going to have sex with Carl. [Pounces on Carl.]
TAMMY: *jealous nausea*
CARL: Oh boy!
Odd -- and perhaps evidence of the power of polyamory -- that at the end of this weekend, during which I frequently felt lonely, nauseated, rejected, and unable to talk about what was going on, the four of us had fallen in love (if not with each other, at least with the idea of what we had done). Aahz and I spent our time on the plane trip back to Detroit gazing smugly into each other's eyes.
Sitting alone with him in the basement of my parents' house, I told him that I didn't think I could be monogamous, and he said that wasn't a problem for him, and it all felt like a marvelous victory.
But we didn't talk about my jealous nausea. And now it demanded its due and began to haunt me in earnest. I felt nervous and insecure throughout the fall. And then the Silicon science fiction convention was upon us.
I had a bad feeling about Silicon. I hadn't been consulted on the idea of going -- we both just assumed that I'd go -- and we hadn't discussed how we were going to interact. I assumed it would be the same as it had been at BayCon -- Aahz bouncing off to other women from time to time, but mostly staying by my side. But part of me worried that it wouldn't be that way. Aahz had been affected by my insecurity of late, even though (or perhaps because) I hadn't talked to him about its source, my obsession with jealousy. There was tension between us, mostly unexamined.
I flipped as soon as Aahz put his hands on another woman. I walked out of the room, but I couldn't think of anything else I wanted to do, so I went back and stayed. Eventually Aahz focused on a woman with a tattoo on her shoulder. I was making out with another guy, without enjoying it much. When Aahz got up, I gave him a hug, seeking reassurance. He returned it distractedly and went quickly back to her.
Late that night Aahz walked his new friend to her room, then came back to bed with me. When we woke up the next morning, he said "I miss her." I took care of him, told him it'd be OK; but later I began to cry. I told him that I had wanted more attention the night before. Resistance. Defensiveness. Confusion. Of course I don't remember what was actually said, but some things stick out:
"I always pick up someone to spend time with at a con. At BayCon it was you, and at this con, it's Tanya."
(I wondered: Does that mean he's going to break up with me now?)
"The couples I know who go to cons go off and do their own things. I don't want to do everything together with you."
(Why didn't he tell me that before? -- Of course he was probably thinking the same thing about me.)
A certain kind of emotional crisis makes me resolutely angry. I decided to give Aahz what he wanted in spades and I succeeded mostly in ignoring him for the rest of the con. I acted like I was having a great time, but I felt sad and lost inside. Toward the end of the con, Aahz asked me to get us memberships for the following year's WorldCon. As I signed up, I wondered whether we'd still be together then.
The con ended, but the crisis didn't. Aahz began writing to his new sweetie on the net. One day he phoned me at home, and the first words out of his mouth were "Damn it! The computer just ate the letter to Tanya that I've been working on for an hour!" After I finished talking to him, I beat myself with a rubber flogger, raising welts. Physical pain was better than the mental pain of feeling that I was good enough only as a container for his obsession with someone else.
Aahz didn't understand why I was upset. After all, I had had other lovers throughout our relationship, and I'd been the one to say I wanted our relationship to be open. I considered not seeing my other lovers any more. But I didn't want to lose Sam, and I thought maybe if I had other lovers, it would help me accept that Aahz wanted to have other lovers too. (It didn't. For me they are entirely separate processes.)
In the midst of the crisis, it began to amaze me, little by little, that through the confusions, miscommunications, and obsessions, Aahz hung on, and I hung on. We argued we talked, we cried, we held each other. Sometimes Aahz begged me to drive the 50 miles to his place, saying he needed to see me and touch me. One morning after a fight, he called in sick and spent the whole day with me.
I visited my parents over Christmas -- a week of separation from Aahz. I'm still a bit surprised that week wasn't the end of us. Every phone call, every piece of email dug us deeper into misunderstanding and hurt. I walked for miles along Lake St. Claire, breathing cold mist and arguing with myself, with him, in my head, trying to reach a place in my heart that offered a little room to stand.
Back with Aahz on New Year's Eve, I watched him cook dinner, and more than once the words "I want to end this" bubbled up into my throat. But I didn't say them. I figured I'd hang on another week, another month. I pride myself on my bulldog qualities -- sometimes holding on is a very good thing.
New Year's Eve has been magical for me for years. We dragged ourselves to a party ten minutes before midnight. My lover Sam was there. My friend Nick was there. I collected several warm hugs. My fear and constriction vanished. I wasn't going to break up with Aahz. I was going to see it through.
New Year's Day, in my dance/music room in San Francisco, Aahz and I performed a ritual we'd designed. Aahz gave me polished stones that his grandfather had made, and I shared with him a silver Welsh dragon necklace. We proclaimed that our relationship would move toward trust, toward freedom, toward connectedness. We drummed together. Our drumming intertwined, and stumbled, and intertwined again, differently. It was the music of our path.
OK, so we'd stumbled hard over the threshold, and we were still together, but what would we do now? Somewhere around this time, I found a newsgroup on Usenet called alt.polyamory, for people in multiple relationships, and we both began reading it. From the start I was drawn to the group, but I had a real hate-hate relationship with it at first. I sat at Aahz's computer in the early mornings after he left for work, and drank large quantities of coffee, and allowed myself to be late for work because my arguments with the denizens of alt.polyamory seemed terribly important.
It bothered me that some people felt polyamory should involve no rules, hierarchies, or restrictions. I see now that I hated this notion because I believed I had to follow it. My biggest problem with Aahz's other relationships was that I found it terribly difficult to say "No, please don't do this, it hurts me." First of all, I didn't know how to articulate what was hurting me -- the screaming tended to drown out the thinking. Second, I believed it was wrong to ask someone to change. Not only that, I believed it was futile. People will do what they do. They won't change for you.
Gradually I began to realize that to accept Aahz's other relationships, I needed the opportunity to say "Yes" to them. In other words, I needed Aahz to ask me about things in advance, rather than doing things and waiting for me to react. I grew up in a society that values independence, so at first that sounded horrible. Make someone ask for permission, like a child? Isn't that codependent? Doesn't it take power away from you and give too much power to your partner? What if your partner has no intention of giving permission?
But you can think yourself past that if you try. With monogamy, permission is automatically denied. One at a time. You just don't do it with anybody else. Some people don't even let their partners overlap at the very beginning of a relationship -- one date and they're behaving as if they're already married.
Next to that, is it really so bad if you need to check with someone before starting another romantic relationship? Your partner might say yes. That's better than an automatic, societally imposed "No!"
To be sure, sometimes the power is abused. But I found, when Aahz granted me the ability to say "Yes," I took very seriously the responsibility of giving the green light. I felt uncomfortable with the responsibility; I wanted to get rid of it; so I said "Yes" as soon as I possibly could. Sometimes I said "Yes" when I should have said "No" or "Yes but." But it was a start.
This process was also good because it made us think and talk about what we wanted. And being able to talk to your partner about what you want is the lion's share of the answer for many problems.
I said "Yes" to Aahz's request to see Tanya when she came to town in February. I was invited too. The three of us cuddled and played together, and that was the last time we saw Tanya. The infatuation had fizzled out, had been kept going only by our mutual obsession with the problems it caused.
Soon after this, Aahz and I moved in together.
Several months later, we went to the WorldCon science fiction convention. Once again we found ourselves in a microcosm of all our problems, wrapped up in 48 hours. I hadn't wanted to go in the first place, but I had felt obligated. (Stef doesn't ask for what she wants. Aahz doesn't remind her to ask.)
Aahz and I have different social styles. When we go to a large gathering, we get polarized fast: I need to stick close to someone I know; he bounces around like a water molecule in a steaming kettle. I'm drained by crowds, he's energized by them. He wants to touch everybody, and I want him all to myself. When we're not communicating clearly, we fall back on reading each other's body language, and we make too many assumptions.
The second night, lying sleepless in bed after a big fight, I decided to abandon the con. Aahz came to the same conclusion and asked me to leave. I returned home and holed up with my lover Sam, trying not to think about any of it. When Aahz got back, all happy and bouncy, I cut him down by accusing him of sacrificing my happiness so he could have his. True in a sense, but I wouldn't've been happy there even if he'd behaved exactly as I wanted.
The solution to this was unpleasant but clear: I don't go to cons with Aahz. This isn't a great hardship for me, since I don't particularly like that form of socializing anyway. We still have issues around socializing. But this time, having the option to say "No" (rather than "Yes") is what helps.
Soon after WorldCon, we decided to see a counselor together. We thought it would be tricky to find someone who was open-minded to both monogamy and polyamory -- I didn't want to be pressured into polyamory by some Heinlein-toting woo-woo, and Aahz didn't want to be told that he was expressing lack of emotional commitment. We got lucky. In a phone interview, we said that we were looking for a counselor who could respect the concept of an open relationship. He said he helped couples make their own agreements rather than imposing ideas on them.
After the first session, I said, "Well, I like him, but I don't know whether it will be fair to work with him, because he seemed to side with me more than with you." And Aahz said: "I thought he sided more with me." So we knew he was going to work out!
Things that had lain dormant for months began bubbling up quickly now. We'd get a shaky grasp on one problem, and the next would be banging rudely on our front door at four in the morning. The problems got more complicated as we improved our ability to communicate (and our standards).
At first we weren't exploring polyamory per se -- not much was going on. Aahz's sweetie had moved out of state and my relationship with Sam was a quiet, steady thing.
Then things started to happen. I got involved with a new lover who quickly became infatuated with me. Aahz began feeling somewhat left out; now I had two lovers (and a few local interests) and all of his lovers were out-of-state. A long-distance friend visited. I surprised myself by having sex with him. Technically this wasn't cheating, because we didn't have an agreement to inform each other of such things in advance. But in spirit it was -- especially because I didn't tell Aahz until three days later. I felt terrible. I offered to be monogamous, and Aahz agreed to be monogamous too.
No sooner had we agreed on monogamy than we had a date with a woman we both had a crush on. We ended up fighting about her for over a week. Once again, we were on the verge of breaking up on New Year's Eve. On New Year's Day, we did another ritual, but in contrast to triumph and determination of the previous year's ritual, this one felt half-hearted, almost hopeless -- "Might as well, what do we have to lose."
I felt obsessed about our problems and constantly on the verge of tears. I decided I had either to leave the relationship or try something different, so I began treatment for depression. Slowly, the cloud began to lift. Our counselor confirmed our decision to be monogamous, at least until we were on more solid footing. My lovers weren't happy, and I wasn't happy (although I was vastly relieved), and Aahz said that he wasn't sure how long he could stand it. But it was necessary.
We agreed upon strict monogamy -- not even any friendly touching of other people. We both found it very difficult. When I visited the East Coast for a week, both of us were very lonely. One night, Aahz called me to say that he wanted to go to a party but needed to stay home because he didn't think he could keep his promise not to touch other people.
Opening The Door
I do a thing called shamanic journeying. It's a form of guided meditation, a way of getting in touch with something that knows what's best for me. It has worked for me for years, and the answers I get are, very simply, always right. I decided to journey and ask for guidance about our relationship.
I was told that I needed to be polyamorous.
Curiously, I was not told that our relationship should be polyamorous, but that I should be. That proved very important. To work out a polyamorous relationship, it's easiest if all participants feel they are getting something out of the arrangement. It's fine to say "Yes dear, whatever makes you happy" if you're discussing where to go for dinner, but that doesn't work so well for an issue that's central to one's identity.
So now the road was clear, although not what I wanted or expected. When I wasn't journeying, I still felt relieved to be monogamous and wanted to stay that way.
We began to talk about specifics. What specific things did I have a problem with? What specific things did I want? What specific things did Aahz want, and what did he have a problem with? Were there any overlaps, areas we could agree on? Gradually it emerged that there were. From the specifics, we put together an agreement about our philosophy of polyamory and worked out ways to balance our relationship with others.
Sometimes people think our agreement doesn't look fair because there are more restrictions on Aahz's behavior than on mine. But it feels fair to us. The usual way to determine fairness is to give everybody the exact same restrictions and freedoms. But what if some of those restrictions chafe someone badly where another person doesn't mind them? What if some of those freedoms are hard for one person to tolerate and not for another? We don't think those arrangements are necessarily fair in an intimate relationship.
We believe in an emotional fairness -- the feeling that no one is getting the short end of the stick. Fairness is working out an agreement where everyone gets to do what he or she really wants, and no one has to deal with something that's really unpleasant for him or her. Maybe that means you can't do some of the things you want to do. Maybe you have to put up with being a little annoyed or unhappy some of the time. But putting up with occasional irritation is worth getting what you really want.
The most important aspect of our agreement has to do with focusing on each other. We agreed to focus most of our energy on our relationship, and to see our other lovers less often than we see each other.
The second important aspect is that we can "veto" a relationship before it really gets going, if we feel it's necessary; or we can say "slow down, don't go so fast." But we avoid vetoing a relationship that's already established.
The third important aspect is that we make room for each other's feelings. If I don't like something Aahz wants to do, he can still do it, but I am allowed to sulk a bit about it. We talk a lot to determine where the line is between "It's OK but I don't like it" and "It's not OK, please don't do it."
The agreement contains minor points too. We don't make love to our lovers in front of each other, unless we're all invited to play. And we don't sleep with other people in our bed. These are matters of etiquette, of making sure everyone feels included and no one feels invaded.
This agreement works for us. Not so much because we follow the agreement to the letter -- sometimes we ignore a tenet, sometimes we make an exception, sometimes we use narrower restrictions -- but because it shows we can understand each other's needs and negotiate compromises that let us have what we most want. And because it shows we respect each other.
Walking The Path
We put the agreement into place with a ritual. We lit a candle on which was written "trust," said that we loved and trusted each other, and waited for the candle to burn all the way down to nothing. Instead, it went out, leaving a stump that we could not relight. I took this as a lesson that although trust is possible up to a point, it may not be possible or good to give complete trust to someone else. I always need to retain my soul and my right to choose.
At first, I was very scared about Aahz's getting involved with someone new. I kicked and screamed and fought myself whenever he made a step toward someone. We had agreed to tell each other everything about how we were feeling. I was feeling some pretty horrible things, and I wanted him to know. I told him things like "I feel like you're giving me a knife and telling me to cut my wrists with it" -- things that made us both cry.
But an interesting thing happened. Every time I told him one of these ugly images, the image went away and didn't come back. It was as if I'd releasing its energy and set it free. So when I kicked and screamed and fought myself over a particular step he took, it usually didn't happen the next time he took that step.
We continued refining, discussing, sharing.
Six or seven months after re-opening the relationship, I mentioned a woman we both liked and told Aahz it would be OK with me if he started a relationship with her. I even helped talk her into it. We started a discussion group for poly folks, wanting to pass along some of what we'd learned. On New Year's Day, we did a ritual as usual. This time though, instead of talking about where we wanted to go, we talked about how happy we were to be exactly where we are.
Our polyamory issues now are on the level of managing inconvenience. It's difficult to schedule time with our other lovers in ways that satisfy everyone. We sometimes haven't liked each other's sweeties. We still haven't figured out a way comfortably to attend parties together. But it's a lot easier. We're able to put energy into other things (he found a new job, I'm starting a business). We're closer than we ever dreamed possible.
What Is "Poly Without Drama"?
If you read this far, you might be wondering why this essay is called "Poly Without Drama," when it seemed we went through a lot of trouble to get here. Drama is not the same as trouble. Everybody has trouble. But you can have trouble without turning it into drama if you have confidence, respect, and trust in yourself and your loved ones. If you try to solve problems, even complicated emotional ones, in ways that make room for the way people really are, instead of reaching for impossible ideals.
Drama can happen when feelings don't get heard. It can happen when someone adopts a stance because of philosophical idealism. We focus on making things work instead. It's all very well and true to say, "I have a right to choose my own lovers." But your partner also has a right to leave and can make your life miserable if you do things the relationship doesn't support. We believe it's best to avoid threats, blame, and principles and focus on making the thing work.
Maybe you're wondering why my story is so focused on one partner. Isn't polyamory about having multiple partners?
Polyamory is about having multiple partners, but there are a lot of ways to go about that. I've always wanted one partner, one person whom I could share all of my life with. I've always enjoyed having a friend for this interest and a friend for that interest -- friends who maybe didn't mix much. It has always made sense to me to include sex in friendships if that's what we wanted to do.
My lovers other than Aahz are friends. I see them frequently if I can, and we include sex and romance in our relationships. But I am not doing with them the things I do with a primary partner: planning the future, expecting them to be there for me most of the time, intertwining my life with theirs. Of course we do some of that. But mostly we're together because it works for us. Aahz's other relationships also more or less follow this pattern. We think it would be nice someday to find another partner-oriented couple to be involved with -- people who understand why our relationship is of primary importance to us and want to share the love generated by that relationship, and by their relationship.
[Editor's Note: You may also wish to see Stef's Polyamory Page].