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Polyamorists: Make Room in Your Life to Innovate


I don’t often post about nonmonogamy, except from the periphery of other topics, but as I was reading another thinkpiece about the relationship escalator, I recognized something I needed to address from my own experience. I don’t think it’s universal, but I can’t put my finger on who does it and who doesn’t; I bet if it hasn’t been an issue for you, it’s at least happened to someone you know (maybe even someone you love, or tried to love).

Polyamorists and other nonmonogamists do not always make enough time to be nonmonogamous.

[There’s a TL;DR below if you’d like to skip my experience and theory and get to practical input.]

When I was caregiving, my entire life revolved around the person who needed me; any spare time I could claim was spent with one of three partners. We were non-hierarchical, with frequent, brooding conversations about what was working for whom, and no small amount of playing that old game “telephone”, where you pass messages through intermediary/ies and something inevitably gets lost in translation. When you’re a kid, it’s supposed to be a laugh and also a lesson in listening comprehension. When you’re a polyamorous adult, it can be a cringe-worthy lesson in emotional literacy, expectations, and filtering your communication so that it finds the right ears in the most helpful manner. We each (myself especially) had layers of self-care missing at the time, and as my grandfather drained me, and I drained them, and no one really replenished any of us as fully as we needed, the logistics of nonmonogamy took up more and more time and energy. When no one is getting everything they need, it gets a lot easier to see something you’re not getting in someone else’s hands.

I’ll spend the rest of my life unpacking the push and pull of those five years between my caregiving responsibilities and my failings as a multiple-lover, but I’m really just setting the stage for a problem that has remained, even as two of those relationships have ended and my grandfather has passed away.

We all hear (or should hear) to make time for self-care, maybe even to treat yourself as an additional relationship in your polycule. I, of course, failed to heed that advice, as caregiving brought with it an inconsolable loneliness and I depended on my 9-5 loves to fill whatever gaps they could. My time alone was spent on unhealthy diversions and obsessions: TV that didn’t really relax me, household problems that never really got resolved. My whole life became as my garage: a stack of problems I was going to get to later (I didn’t realize I was a low-key hoarder until nearly a year after moving my grandfather into memory care).

My partners encouraged me to socialize wherever I could, and I sustained some long-distance connections early on and a play partner/friend-with-benefits or two later, but I never made extra time to socialize with my caregiver friends (because they wouldn’t understand me!). I never called up friends who’d promised to always be there and ask them to show up. I never reached out to new friends to distract me with whatever wonderful thing they were studying in grad school or showing off in their sex-positive workshops. I never got that dog I needed for company. I didn’t even do a very good job of connecting with those people who kept odd hours like I did, who actually COULD hang out in the afternoons or the late weeknights.

My best self-care practices were picking up new social justice learnings from the Internet and brooding over them internally (as much as I did write and post about them, processing out loud with anyone who was foolish enough to ask, they were on my mind ten times as much). But activism requires respite. Solidarity. Compassion for self and others. The angrier I got at the systems in which I’d always been complicit, the less human I treated myself, and the more my poor three loves, knowing nothing better to do, tried to fill in the gaps of my humanity.

The activities I engaged instead of self-care are distinct to me, but I have seen similar patterns in others: polyamorists like me have so much affection to give or receive (for me it works in cycles around stress level, maybe for you, too?), we never leave time to idle, to exist as a neutral being. We are always feeding one relationship or another (and if not, we are pursuing the next one, because relationships are fun or something) and then running to work and take care of kids and “catching up” on logistics or even self-caring by medical necessity, but we’re never just sitting around waiting to see what might happen if we stand still.

It may or may not be different for you, but even when I’m poly-saturated, I like to be open to new sparks in my romantic and/or sexual life. This, too, could be its own post, but suffice it to say that polyamory includes elements of exploration for me — exploring humanity by dating different types of people, exploring myself by getting to know the contrasts between us all. For all the conquerors out there who see nonmonogamy as a knife with which to notch the proverbial bedpost, I like finding new ways to connect, communicate, and sustain openness. For all my apathy toward modern art, I would happily wander a gallery of abstract relationship configurations; I have just defaulted to created such works myself where possible because I haven’t met many others who seemed to be doing it well.

Of course, I haven’t done it well in a long time. If polyamory is my art (which is not to say whether I am good at love and/or sex, only that it feels like self-expression when relationships are going well and self-denial when they are not), if polya is my art then my palette is dry, my canvases torn, and my brushes worn to a nub. But while I’m regrouping, deciding what to repurpose and what to discard, I am noticing other things that happen. My “studio” (that is, the space in my life where I make relationship “art”) has room for other things. Obviously, it’s a smaller total space because I had to make room for grad school, but the rest of the space is getting more open and inviting. Not for relationships — I haven’t started even a casual relationship with anyone new in years — but for other things that nourish the self. There is room for visitors; I actually hang out with my friends once in a while, and talk about work and family and hopes and dreams with someone who is not overtly part of them. There is room for getting sick once in a while, or taking care of someone else when they are sick. There is room for clearing out some of the material clutter in my life (which, wouldn’t you know it, helps clear the emotional clutter as well — hoarders, I am told, place greater-than-average emotional value in objects, whether practical or sentimental, so we’re talking all levels of baggage here). There is room to plan research and contemplate publication. I think there might be room for spirituality, or at least room to try to make more room for spirituality (there I go again with the unfinished projects…). There is room to plan ahead, actually plan ahead! People do that! I never knew. There is room to cry and laugh and succeed and fail. There is room to contemplate my gender and my attractions without such thinkies bumping up against contrary forces. There is room to say goodbyes, and there is room to say hellos.

This has turned into a way more personal essay than I’d intended, so let me bring it back around to broader experiences and (hopefully) offer some useful bulletpoints:

[TL;DR, start reading here!]

Suggestions for Ethical Nonmonogamists Who Need to Make Space for Better Relationship Art

For those of us who have come to nonmonogamy out of a place that is philosophical, ethical, resistant to norms, and culturally charged, it is not enough to make a few changes in how you define a relationship and then find someone(s) who more or less agree with you. We are subverting long traditions of unthinking relationships and socially-coded courting. This necessitates developing a sense of not just being AGAINST those traditions but actually being FOR something else. Which means exploring. Which means fucking up. Which means involving others (consensually! or GTFO) in your exploration. Which means communicating better but still hurting people sometimes. Which means skill-building and no small amount of emotional intelligence. Which means work. Which means having room to work.

I’ve drawn up a list, should be helpful to me. Hopefully you’ll find it helpful, too.

  • We cannot explore anything if every minute of every day is planned.
  • We cannot know ourselves if we do not spend time alone.
  • We cannot challenge our own assumptions if we only date people who do what we want, anticipate our needs, coddle us, and generally minimize our discomfort — chances are, they are burying their own, anyway.
  • We cannot build on one another’s ideas without group conversations that challenge our assumptions.
  • We cannot bother calling ourselves ethical anything if nonmonogamy is only something we do on the weekends or at burns/cons. Neither can we call it ethical if we don’t recognize that libidos, affections, and connections cycle up and down and require check-ins, anticipation, and patience to sort out.
  • We cannot have strong conversations about important topics if we spend more time pseudo-recruiting monogamists and courting newbies than working with other polyamours (whether our partners or not) on navigating hard times.
  • We cannot dictate to ourselves or our partners who, when, or why we’ll experience attraction or fall in love. We can, however, develop ideas about how to address concerns before and when they arise.
  • We cannot go fast until we’ve tested the brakes.
  • We cannot see our true value in relationships, nor check our advantages them and leverage them in support of others, unless we empower those around us to speak openly about our best, worst, and least interesting qualities.

Bonus: Suggestions for Making Space in Nonmonogamist Spaces

  • We cannot explore the idea of what ethical nonmonogamy is if we only talk about it with people we might sleep with.
  • We cannot create a dating world that is separated from the political, social, and economic world around us.
  • We cannot be prescriptive, assuming there is “one twue polyamory” that must fit all relationship models. If you think someone else’s version is a pile of shit, just step around it and keep doing what works for you.
  • We cannot all make time to read everything that’s ever been written about nonmonogamy, but we owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to read something once in a while and to share what we learn with others (who can then read something else).
  • We cannot just borrow our hard conversations from BDSM, tantra, swingers, Christian self-help, dead religions, or anyone else (even other polyamorists — GASP!); each of these spaces has their own history and their own hangups — they may inform your practice, but not everyone feels welcome there (nor even wants to) so you have to find a way to make it your own — and empower your partners to do the same.
  • We cannot create inclusive spaces that break polynormative patterns (young, hot, white, wealthy) if we do not empower the voices of women/trans/nonbinary folks, people of color, queer folks, people with disabilities, people without economic means, people who are not conventionally attractive (or even attractive to us), people with kids, people with less education than us. THIS WILL REQUIRE US TO SPEAK LESS AND LISTEN MORE — ESPECIALLY WHITE CISMEN WHO ARE USED TO BEING IN CHARGE.
  • We cannot have big conversations if everyone defers to one or two proxy leaders (local or national) to speak for them; at some point, you’re going to have to form an opinion of your own. Also, if your chosen poly idol looks just like you or someone you’d like to take to bed, you might not be looking very hard.
  • We cannot talk about hierarchies and non-hierarchical approaches unless we explore the ways we favor a centralized leadership model and at least once in a while talk about alternatives. (And for goodness sake, talk to an actual anarchist sometime before you self-describe as RA.)
  • We cannot build sustainable networks while retaining explosive, side-taking break-ups or a flame-war approach to internet fora. Learn to identify your own bad habits and recruit others to help contain them.
  • We cannot build spaces that are safe for exploring ourselves and our ideas if we do not talk about consent, abuse, discrimination, exclusion, and whether a particular space believes someone can be rehabilitated (let alone how). What, this sounds exhausting and might interfere with? I thought polyamory was supposed to be “graduate school for relationships”? /sarcasm
  • We cannot have impactful cons without breaks, breakouts, and unstructured spaces for people to ruminate and connect informally. (Organizers: See tips for individuals above and ask whether con-goers can do these things.) Neither can we build solidarity or even a quality network if ALL local events are social events.

In summation: If ethical nonmonogamy is something that we believe is good for us, we need to create the space to let it flourish.

(And we can’t get very far by just jotting down lists when we get a notion and putting it up on the Internet, hoping a few people read it. I’m certain I’ve left stuff out. I’m certain I’ve overlooked something important or misspoken above. Call me on it, if you are so inclined. Write something of your own. Have a conversation with your people. Get to dialogue-ing, yall.)

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