[Note: This was written for a book called The Second Coming, edited by Pat Califia and Robin Sweeney, to be released by Alyson Publishing, sometime in the summer of 1996. The book is a collection of writings by leatherdykes, and is a sequel to the 1980 anthology Coming to Power, which was edited by the Samois Collective, and published by Alyson Press. Anyone wanting more info on these books can send email to email@example.com.
Many thanks to them for letting me steal a little of their thunder, and a special thank-you hug to Wolfie. - Bearpaw]
I have a set of five rules for a relationship. These tend to be my starting point in negotiations.
Now that I have your attention, let's start with some definitions before I get any further on my soapbox. Polyfidelity is having a closed circle of lovers, with a shared commitment within that circle. Polyamoury is having any number of lovers, often with a few who are considered primary. Monogamy is having one partner with whom there is a lifelong commitment. Then there is the concept of fluid monogamy/polyfidelity, wherein sex between partner/s is unprotected, but any sexual activity outside the defined relationship is strictly safe. Further exploration also finds emotional monogamy, where there is an emotional commitment between two people, who both have other sex partners. Emotional polyfidelity is basically the same thing with a multiple structure.
I have been a part of many of these structures all of my adult life, having run the gamut from hippie free-love communes, to anarchist squat house-mommy, to one attempt at a monogamous commitment. I have been part of a family where one person was not sexually involved with any of the other family members, yet was the most committed to the relationship of any of us. In my current family, one of my partners and I switch frequently, sometimes confusing those around us. Our third partner is in full-time collar to us both, with a padlock that we both have keys for. She recently has expressed an interest in learning to top, which we are slowly integrating into our playdates. There can be any combination of people and dynamics, and sex need have very little to do with family and commitment.
Let me repeat that. Sex is a wonderful bond, great fun, and has very little to do with family and commitment. I would never want to live with everyone I wanted to fuck, nor fuck everyone I choose to live with.
Let me also provide my definition of "family," a word much bandied about in the current political climate. A family is a group of people who have chosen to live as a committed, interdependent, mutually supportive structure; emotionally, physically and financially. Again, sex is a wonderful bonus, but not necessary for commitment. Other optional features include variable age range and the collective raising of children. Cats are mandatory. I recommend at least one radical faerie for glamour, and any well-behaved straight boy should be kept in the oubliette for the occasional bit of grunt work that you just don't feel like doing.
All of the above mentioned are valid working structures. I have heard so many people in alternative relationship communities be condescending toward people in monogamous relationships, referring to them as "unevolved" or "unenlightened". This seems pretty specious to me coming from people who are demanding respect for their choice of relationship structure. Striking parallels of this exist in any number of communities, queer, leather, dyke, faggot, you name it. The pattern of isolating one's self and/or community under the guise of "we are bound together because we are somehow superior" is one of the most effective forms of cultural suicide that I know of. This is often accompanied by the societal perversion that different must somehow be better or worse, never equal. I believe it is this isolationist thought pattern, with the "different is better/worse" mindset, that combine with the limits of dualism(1) to trap many of us into believing that we have a limited capacity for emotional commitment.
Monogamy is a structure that works quite well for some people, yet is societally enforced as the "normal" style which all of us should strive for. Society as a whole tends to see things in a dualistic format, and this has fed the "monogamy as normal" thread through most of our enculturation. During the sexual revolution of the '60's and '70's, and since then, what has ended up happening is often a form of emotional monogamy. Or, for the most part, relationships that consist of one central figure and several others who are committed to that one person but not necessarily to each other. This is the harem syndrome, a form of polyamoury, and is the one I consider the least stable. In this situation, if the central figure leaves or has some sort of crisis, there is no stable structure for anyone else to fall back on.
Something I want to be very clear on is that what usually is considered an open relationship is what I have defined as emotional monogamy, and is just that. A form of monogamy. One of the difficulties in talking about "open" relationships is that most people see them only in terms of sex. Many people in self-defined open relationships are fine with their partner having sex with any number of other play partners, but draw a very clear line at any other emotional involvement. Mention the concept of loving and committing to more than one other person, with everyone living together, and blank looks abound.
What I see as the dysfunctional tendency in enforced monogamy is that it presupposes that all of anyone's emotional, physical, and psychic/psychological needs can be met by only one other person. Some people do indeed find one single person whose self-complexity is equitably balanced with their own and have a wonderful lifelong relationship. Many others, who hold this as an ideal, instead fall into the category of serial monogamy. These tend to be either repeated attempts to find the "right one" or a series of conscious time-specific commitments.
We all get trapped in this thing of "we have to find someone to spend the rest of our lives with!" whether its a stated goal, scorned dream, or both.
The serious flaw in this pattern is the pervading sense that many people carry that if their relationship wasn't lifelong that it, or they, somehow failed. It is only the enforced monogamy mindset which can define a relationship as failed. The phrase "it just didn't work out " is really common when discussing a past relationship, but what is it that didn't work?
Must all our interactions be judged on a pass/fail basis? Isn't the experience of these relationships the important part? To say that a relationship "didn't work" after having been together for any amount of time is to imply that nothing was learned from the experience, and nobody ever had a good time.
I have had many wonderful relationships in which I learned a lot about life and myself. Most of these people are now good friends and occasional fuckbuddies. Some of them I have no communication with by mutual consent, but that's due more to the pain of separation than any sense of failure. I see all of these as valuable relationships in my development as a person and priest of the pagan ghodz. There is nothing inherently wrong in having a relationship for two months, nine months, seven years, or however long. Which is not to say that breakups are easy or simple, mind you. They could often, however, be more amicable if partners didn't carry this hidden sense of failure to compound all of the other huge emotional issues that go with any form of separation.
Polyamoury in the leatherdyke community is one of the most common lifestyles, yet is rarely called that or even acknowledged as such. How many of us know someone who lives with their mistress/daddy/owner except for the one day a week that they stay with their own pet/little boychick/ whatever, and then have that woman that they've spent "Living in Leather" with every year for the past four and so on, and so on. Now, having been too well therapy trained, I am not going to contradict anyone's self-definition, but a lot of these women define their relationships as emotionally monogamous. I don't see how it is possible to have any kind of ongoing s/m relationship without some form of committed emotional bond happening. The nature of who we are and how we fuck makes it impossible to be that detached from whoever is sharing that level of trust and intensity with us.
Levels and definitions of emotional monogamy vary, however. I am not trying to imply that women who define themselves as emotionally monogamous have absolutely no emotional bonds outside of their partner. We all have many levels of emotional bonds that run the gamut of friends, ex-lovers, kids, relatives, etc. There is a distinct difference, however, between an emotional bond and an emotionally supportive commitment. I have emotional bonds with a huge number of people. My commitment, however, is first to my family, then my immediate clan, and then the community of paganfolk who consider me their priest. They have my love, support and allegiance.
Lest y'all think I'm trying to convince you that group relationships are easier, understand that all of the things that complicate any relationship are exponentially increased in an multiple relationship. If one person alone has a problem, then there is one problem. If two people have problems together, there are six problems. The problem each person has of their own, the problem each person has with the relationship, and the problem each person perceives the other person to be having with the relationship. Add more people and you add the dynamic of each person being afraid that the others are somehow united against them. Stuff like jealousy, anger, inability to communicate affect everyone in the family, which means that there are that many more emotional realities and perceptions to account for. There's no need for any relationship to end because of these feelings. Everyone involved, however, must be able to acknowledge the reality of other people's perceptions, and be willing to talk about them in a group setting. Group resolution can't be achieved by a succession of one on one conversations. The more perspectives that are spoken and heard collectively, the more complete is the vision of the shared reality. It's kind of like cutting a gemstone. Only when all of the facets are in place can the fire of the stone be seen.
What actually makes a multiple person relationship work, let alone one with s/m dynamics involved, are clear communication and respect for the other's perspective; honesty and self-awareness are key factors. As much as no one can ever really know what's in anyone else's head, no one else knows what you want if you haven't said anything . Especially with power and submission involved. Don't put yourself into a relationship as a submissive service bottom, when what you really want is to be everybody else's pampered little girl. Conversely, don't negotiate for the house queen position unless you have the skill and strength to sustain it. Be up front about what you want and how much you are willing to compromise and exchange for it.
One of the things which most complicates a multiple relationship is balancing the emotional needs and connections of all partners. From my experiences in the s/m community, relationships are not based necessarily on an equal partnership, but an equitable one, where everyone's needs are taken into account and negotiated. The whole purpose of a multiple relationship is the sharing of resources, tangible and otherwise, so that everyone's needs are met. Defining the difference, however, between needs and wants can be really tricky. One triad I was in was short-lived, because one of the partners decided that she wanted both myself and our girlfriend to be as "in love" with her as the two of us were with each other. Personally, I can't feel exactly the same way about or toward more than one person, precisely because they are different people. This doesn't mean that living with two people who are newly in love isn't a pain in the ass, but it does go back to the "different must be better/worse" trap I mentioned earlier. Within any multiple relationship there are going to be different dynamics between sets of people. There are levels of love, "in love", best friends, compatriots, whatever, that are constantly evolving and changing as long as they are given room and time. All of the connections between different groupings within a relationship need to be as flexible as possible. There is no room for growth in a field of rigid absolutes. Emotional rigidity, caused by fear and insecurity (and often manifested in ultimatums and drawn lines) disintegrates more connections between people than almost anything else. The second most dangerous pitfall in group realities is qualitative judgment. Too many people unconsciously try to impose their judgments of what is "good enough" on to other's motives. This just does not work in any adult relationship. I actually had one partner who told me that although I was having dates with her according to our family schedule, I wasn't doing it for the right reasons, so it wasn't good enough. Everyone must be held accountable for their actions, but judging someone else's motivations is as ridiculous as judging someone else's fantasies.
There must also be allowances made for changes and evolution in any of the relationship dynamics. Many women go through changing phases of only being a top or a bottom. For those people in more role-based relationships, for example daddy/boy games, there will come a time when your boy is grown up. These changes don't have to mean the end of the relationship, but necessitate a willingness to renegotiate and restructure the balance of the dynamic, or admitting that you have learned all you can from each other and need to move into another cycle of growth and exchange. Which may or may not involve all the same people. There is nothing wrong with any of these solutions.
Overlaying the dynamics of s/m and dominance/submission onto the structure of a group relationship is at once both incredibly tricky and much easier than vanilla group relationships. This has a lot to do with the fact that perverts usually have better negotiating skills. I have found that it's much easier if everyone switches, but that's my personal preference. In my relationships I spend most of my time as matriarch, but a fair amount being daddy's little girl or the house puppy. One relationship I was in was with an established group marriage which had been together for nine years. We were together for over a year, until it became obvious that there was too much house queen competition for the relationship to be functional on a long term basis. (translation: I and one of the other partners fought over who got to be the queen far too often and seriously for everyone's comfort level, especially our kids.) Now, after having a period of little communication while they and I restructured our lives without each other, we are all friends who play and fuck on a semi-regular basis.
Some structures that work really well in creating a sense of stability within group relationships are basic logistics. Creating a sleeping schedule, as in who sleeps with whom which nights and who gets to sleep alone, is crucial. Everyone needs their own room and bed to have as a safe space.
Having one night a week set aside as "family night", a time to play, talk, or go to the movies together helps everyone feel like they are a part of something larger than just themselves. One family that I know plays music and sings together two nights a week. Others do craftwork or worship together. Group fucks are always encouraged. Almost anything works just as long as its something everyone in the family can be an integral part of. This also depends on whether there are children in the family to be considered when choosing an activity. It doesn't always have to be the same thing, but having it as a regular date is recommended.
Something that I have done in all my relationships, even with my daughter, is to sit down on our anniversary and discuss how we are doing, and what if anything needs change. We look at the past year and talk about how things have been, and who has gone through what changes. Then, if its still what we want, we reaffirm our commitments. Finding the balance between stability and stagnation is always a challenge.
You would think that queers would get the concept of alternative family structures, wouldn't you? We who are so proud of our holy diversity. How many times have I had to explain that I have two, yes two partners and we are looking for more? At least as many times as I have to explain it to my self and my two girlfriends. Let alone my daughter's school. Much of what I have read concerning polyamourous and polyfidelitous relationships is focused on hetero structures and dynamics. Which is not to say that a lot of the information couldn't be applied to a queer family. Of course, no one really expects queers and perverts to have families of our own. Including us. It all boils down to one single concept, which is that multiple committed relationships are a hell of a lot of work. Yeah, I know, like any relationship is easy whether it has two or ten people in it.
In times when the surrounding culture is trying its best to isolate all queers and perverts and tell us that we are not capable of having any form of stable family in our lives, we need to be able to see and explore all of our possibilities. Many of us have made a revolutionary career of tricking, and the ability to take pleasure for pleasures' sake without attachments and expectations is truly one of the great feminist achievements of our time as well as one of the most ancient forms of spirituality known. Our families should be no less revolutionary. The ability to choose who we love, live with and take care of is something that needs no limits from anyone else's definitions or structures. Family is something we get to choose, create and evolve however we wish.
Wolfie is a pagan priest, hippie-anarchist welfare mother living in Oakland, with dreams of opening a temple/dungeon in Oregon sometime in the next five years. When pressed, she identifies politically as a drag queen leatherdyke separatist. She prefers to call her followers 'devotees' rather than 'slaves', because they have to be seriously devoted to put up with her, especially during her bouts with fibromyalgia. Currently creating a family with two other women and her ten year old daughter, (and they're taking applications) she dreams of a day when polyfidelity and polyamorous are everyday words and the day her daughter is done with puberty.