So, a friend of mine asked me about my non-monogamy.
Really, he’s more of an acquaintance. A friend of a friend. A bro-y cisgender, heterosexual, black guy. Just like me. While helping our friend-in-common move apartments, he decided to ask me about the juicy details of my polyamorous life.
Do you know that part in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Dumbledore’s Army is meeting for the first time? In an effort to elect Harry as leader, the other students start rattling off his achievements from the previous four books as proof that he’s the right person for the job. But for Harry, this isn’t an awesome highlight reel. It’s his life. He doesn’t look at it as an exciting retrospective on an action-packed journey. He sees it, accurately, as a list of all the times when he had to make hard and fast decisions or face the most dire of consequences.
So, instead I turned on the analogy machine and told him my polyamory was like baseball. Pausing to let him conjure images of bases collected and dingers knocked out the park, I moved over to talking about pitching. A pitcher at any level of organized baseball knows that you can’t just hurl the ball the same way at every batter. You can’t even pitch the same way to the same batter if the game’s circumstances have changed during or in between at-bats. Multiple situations require multiple strategies.
As it comes to polyamory, a different approach is necessary with every partner you’re involved with.
That’s the kind of space I found myself in. This acquaintance, through the storytelling of our mutual friend and from brief glimpses on social media, knows about my non-monogamy as a series of risque stories. Granted, I can definitely relay a few not-safe-for-work tales about wild nights and adult activities that would be unacceptable within a strictly monogamous relationship. But that’s not the lens through which I view my own life.
As it comes to polyamory, a different approach is necessary with every partner you’re involved with. In many cases, switching between different authentic aspects of your personality multiple times in short-shift is absolutely necessary. You may need to be the calming presence for a partner who is anxious about changes at their job. You may need to be a cheerleader for a partner who is undertaking a brand new project. You may need to be a provider of racy banter for a partner who is eagerly anticipating a hot date with you or with someone else. And just to shake it up, you may need to be all of those people over the course of an hour-long lunch break just by switching chat windows on your smartphone.
Should I remember to open doors and walk on the outside of the sidewalk? Or should I remember that chivalry is an outdated concept that infantilizes women?
Not only do you have to remember who to be, polyamory also requires remembering who your partners are. Meaning, you have to stay on top of which partner prefers to drive vs. which partner prefers to relax in the passenger seat. One of your partners loves chocolate. One of them is allergic to the corn syrup that’s often found in chocolate. Should I remember to open doors and walk on the outside of the sidewalk? Or should I remember that chivalry is an outdated concept that infantilizes women?
At the same time, it’s not just who you are for your partners’ sakes but who they are for yours. I can say unequivocally that every person I date engages me in a different way. Which makes perfect sense when you don’t view people as interchangeable warm bodies in wild sex fantasies. But more importantly than that, is the fact that each partner draws from me a unique but authentic aspect of my being. Like a multicolored pen. All ten colors are in the barrel, but each partner presses down a different lever.
A person in my life might encourage my ambitious side. All of a sudden, the projects that I’m a part of might see more attention. Another love might bolster the activist within me. She might invite me to protests or social justice initiatives that I might have been otherwise unaware of. Dating an educator might find me delivering more of my usual long-winded diatribes. But instead of being on a couch at a party amongst my closest friends, I’d be presenting them as a workshop at an academic conference.
All things that I had the capacity or interest in doing but maybe not the proper push to follow through with.
Along with all of this switching speeds, you also have to give yourself room to hit the brakes. As multifaceted as polyamory may require you to be, you still need to be able to opt out and find time for self care or introspection when you need to. Maybe that means going fishing or meditating or exercise. But you owe it to your partners and to yourself to be able to focus on what you need to maintain your personal wellness. At the same time, your partners owe it to you to give you adequate space for that maintenance.
No monogamous person with an interest wants to hear that a polyamorous relationships can be as uneventful or as tedious as their own. They want lurid accounts of threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes.
But nobody wants to hear about all that. Certainly not the acquaintance that was asking the questions. He didn’t think I’d start talking about how often I juggle emotional labor. Bringing up how my partners stir underdeveloped or underutilized aspects of my personality pretty much ended the conversation.
There’s nothing sexy about emotional literacy or calendar management or taking time to process your feelings before having deep discussions with people you love. All of that stuff which would also benefit monogamy… that stuff which non-monogamy absolutely thrives on? It’s booooorrrrrinng! It’s sometimes boring to live. It’s definitely boring to listen to. And therein lies the problem. The representation problem.
No monogamous person with an interest wants to hear that a polyamorous relationships can be as uneventful or as tedious as their own. They want lurid accounts of threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes. That’s why our media appearances, created by monocentric sources, are often so slanted towards that end. Even critics of polyamory focus their barbs on the ideas of sexual health and fidelity. It’s all anyone on the outside thinks about.
So, we have to ask ourselves, why are we looking to cater to their perspective in the first place? Why would we allow ourselves to be the freakshow in a monogamous human circus? Cunning Minx of the fantastic and long-running Polyamory Weekly podcast ends every episode with the catchphrase: “Remember…it’s not all about the sex.” But that podcast is an informational resource for those who are practicing or interested in polyamory. It’s not entertainment fodder for people who’s only real questions are “Who’s sleeping with who and how?”
So, how do we alter that representation? We use our own voices to tell our own stories. We give the boring relationship stuff as much exposure as the sexy stuff. We make sure to remember our audience. That new poly-interested person who’s trying to find their own way needs to hear about navigating shared Google calendars just as much or more than they need to hear about a play party. They can then use their new Google calendar skills to organize their own play parties…that they subsequently refuse to talk about with their own monogamous acquaintances.