Thursday, December 19, 2013

Why Knot: Breaking the Silence on Monogamy

It’s not often that a film comes along and asks the right questions about monogamy, gender, sexuality, and open relationships.
Why Knot: Breaking the Silence on Monogamy just might be one of those films.

Though I haven’t seen the whole documentary, the clips I’ve seen offer candid conversations about marriage, monogamy, and open relationships and an impressive line up of top experts on sexuality and non-monogamies.  As a researcher and teacher of gender and sexuality studies, and as someone who does poly and open relationships, I really want to see this film completed and distributed.

The filmmakers are currently crowd sourcing to fund final production and release. They have only eight days left to reach their goal.  You can see clips and donate here.  

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reluctant Participation in Open Relationships

Bruce Philip: Myth of Reluctance
An anonymous reader commented on the description of the 2Plus blog and requested advice on their own relationship.  In the comment, the reader said,“This is new territory
for me and not something I would be particularly interested in if my girlfriend of 7 months hadn't recently expressed to me how stifled and unhappy she has always felt in a monogamous relationship (similar to your itchy sweater description). I love her dearly and the thought of her unhappy or us breaking up is absolutely gut wrenching.”

While I’m not comfortable offering explicit advice to individuals, as is the case with all entries, I can only offer my own experiences and hope they are in some way helpful.

My first open relationship was with my first boyfriend; let’s call him Jason. Jason and I had been together since high school, I had shed my virginity with him, and we had been together for about 5 years when I told him I wanted to open the relationship.  After many hours of discussion, including why I wanted it and how it would look, he agreed. 

In retrospect, I am fairly certain that he agreed because he knew it was the only way I could be happy, and he didn’t want to lose me.  I’m speculating, but based on my and his behavior in the open relationship, his preference was monogamy, but he went along because, on some level, both he and I knew that I could never be happy in a life-long, monogamous relationship. 

We stayed together for six more years, and during that time I had several lovers while he only had one brief dalliance.  We had what some call a mono-poly relationship.  He was monogamous, and I was polyamorous.  During those six years, I had two lovers with whom I “fell in love”.  Jason was friends with one of them-they became golfing buddies and the three of us would sometimes go see music together, while Jason and the other lover had less in common and so didn’t really spend time together.  I can’t speak for Jason, but it seemed to work, and though mono-poly relationships pose their own set of challenges, they are possible.

Jason and I split up after being together for almost twelve years, not because of the mono-poly arrangement but because we grew in different directions, and our paths were no longer compatible.  In the end, I feel comfortable saying that, though he never would have suggested or initiated opening our relationship, and he did so because he and I both knew that it was the only way I could be myself, it was the right decision for us at the time and it made the relationship work for a very long time. 

Having said that, I firmly believe that a reluctant or monogamous partner is very different from an unwilling one. 

I don’t know anyone who isn’t reluctant when first opening a relationship.  It’s scary for most, if not all.  Currently, Scott and I are negotiating an open relationship.  He has never been anything but happy in monogamy, and as he tells it, he never would have considered an open relationship if he hadn’t known Marc and me. He has expressed a lot of trepidation but also some excitement and enthusiasm about the prospect of having other lovers and developing relationships with my future lovers.  After over two years together, Scott knows me, and he has known from the start that long-term monogamy is not an option.  He is, in many ways, reluctant but not unwilling. For this reason, we are taking things very, very slowly.  

In our case, we have decided to get our feet wet, so to speak, by starting off with threesomes.  Others start by going to erotic parties or clubs to just watch or have sex with each other without having contact with other people. I have found that telling each other dirty stories about what we each might do with other people not only makes for some really hot throw-downs, but also can alleviate some of the anxiety.  In other words, some reluctance is par for the course, and differences in enthusiasm or desire for opening the relationship is not the same thing as a fundamental incompatibility.  From my experience, the key is a lot of communication, taking things slowly, and often and consistently checking in to see how everybody is doing. 

As I’ve said before on this blog, the last thing I would do is open a relationship to solve conflict or to “save” an already problem relationship.  Unless the relationship is otherwise solid, communication is good, and one or both partners is unsatisfied with being monogamous, opening a relationship will only exacerbate the already existing problems. Further, if one partner is monogamous and does not want to be in a mono-poly relationship, I can’t see how an open relationship could work. If one partner can only be happy with a monogamous partner and the other can only be happy with being open, I would suggest that those partners are incompatible.  As is the case with any other fundamental incompatibility, the likelihood of all involved having their needs met while sustaining the relationship is low, if not impossible.  Just as monogamy is not for everyone, neither are open relationships.  Partners need to dig deep and be honest with themselves and each other about what each wants and needs and where they are willing to compromise and still be who they want to be. 

In that vein, I commend the reader’s girlfriend for being open and honest about how she feels. It can be terrifying to tell a partner that monogamy is an “itchy sweater”.  That she was willing to take that risk rather than cheat, repress her needs, or end the relationship takes a lot of courage and trust. And I admire the reader for being open to trying.  That, too, takes courage and trust.  I wish the best for both of you. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Social Scaffolds

My partner Scott is living with two men who are in a long-term partnership.  In a conversation tonight, he talked about our relationship for the first time.  Scott, in other words, “came out” as open and poly to his gay roommates. 

They were, for the most part, supportive.  When they asked whether or not I was bisexual, Scott said that I don't identify as bisexual, but I am queer and like threesomes with women.  They winked and said, “Every straight boy's dream.”  I would have been more impressed if they said something about a boy-on-boy-on-girl threesome being every straight girl's dream, but hey, for the most part, they were very supportive of our open relationship.

But when the topic turned to being poly, for real…like Scott and I will be open to, not just fucking the hot bi babe, but also being emotionally intimate with others of all genders, they said something like…and I’m paraphrasing here…Oh.  Polyamory.  We’ve known people who have tried to do polyamory, and it never ends well.


It’s hard for me to keep my chin up about the prospects for the future.  Not because I believe that polyamory isn’t possible.  I know that it is.  I know people who have more than one partner and are blissfully happy.

It’s hard because I’m a sociologist, and I know that social scaffolding…social support is the key to relationship success.  People need to have others look at their household or relationships and say, “Good for you.  We want you to succeed.  We honor your commitment to each other, and we will support you in good times and in bad.”

Scott is just now coming out as poly, and I have to say that, to hear that some of the first people he talked to warned him and said they’re worried about his well-being…well, it’s not exactly Private Jr. coming home from the war or college and saying to his parents, “I found the girl of my dreams and we’re going to settle down and make babies.”  

Hugs, tears of happiness, wedding showers, weddings, mothers-in-law on the other end of the line saying, “You can make this work.  Trust me.  It takes compromise and negotiation, but this is what will make you happy.”

Monogamous couples ride that social scaffolding, taking in the glory and gifts.  Have a baby?  The world is your socially supportive oyster.  They know that, despite the loneliness, squelched desire, and unrelenting toil of a traditional household, the whole world has their back as they endeavor to make a life together.

The irony is that most of the research shows that the life celebrated with hugs and gifts doesn’t make people, especially women, happy in the long run. 

Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan talked about the feminine mystique.  A mirage of happiness held up on white, middle class women’s horizon to get them to trundle forward toward marriage and childrearing only for the dream to dissipate into a dry desert of self-effacing servitude to others. 

As I make my way in the world as poly, I witness a chorus around me…a mirage…saying to my partners and me, “It doesn’t work.  Traditional marriage is the only way to go-whether you’re gay or straight.” 

Scott, excited for our future, hears from his roommates, “I’ve heard about polyamory.  It never ends well.”

I want to say to those very supportive gay men…

First, how many relationships, monogamous or otherwise, have you witnessed that end, end well?  Seriously. 

Second, it wasn’t very long ago that people thought same-gender partnerships couldn’t work.  “You need a wife or husband,” roommates and parents said.  “You need to fit in.  There is no place in this world for you to form a household with someone of the same gender.  I fear for you.  I’ve seen gay relationships, and they never end well.”

Might it be that Scott’s roommates’ success in building a household with supportive neighbors and family is inextricable from the LGBT social movements that made those relationships legitimate?  Are Scott’s roommates at all aware that they’re throwing our relationship under the bus to hold up monogamy…the relationship form that gives them showers and gifts and leaves us out in the cold?

It saddens, but doesn’t surprise me that two middle class, white gay men say to Scott that they fear for his well being because he’s doing relationships differently from the norm.  They’re cozy at the hearth of “normal” and closing the shutters on those of us still out in the cold. 

I can rationalize, form a rebuttal--like I am here--but when it comes right down to it, I’m feeling defeated by the social pressure to just take the easy, “normal”, monogamous route.  I’m not wavering in my own convictions, but I worry about Scott or any newbie to polyamory because they don’t get the social support Private Jr would get for settling down with his wife or husband.

Marc was told that polyamory doesn’t work.  Scott is now being told that polyamory doesn’t work. 

Perhaps those saying this are right.  It doesn’t work.  Not because it isn’t a wonderful, healthy, fulfilling way to do family and relationships in this world of longevity, gender equality, and Anthony Giddens’ pure relationships.  No.  Polyamory doesn’t work because the whole fucking world is telling us it’s impossible. 

Monday, July 8, 2013


It’s been a long time since Marc and/or I have posted on this blog. 

A lot has happened since the last entry and, though neither Marc nor I have been writing it here, there is a story to tell and continue telling.  For now, I am going to pick up the blog on my own to tell what has transpired and how things move forward in to the future.

If you’ve read the previous entries, you know that Marc and I have been in a relationship for thirteen years.  We’ve lived together for ten.  Scott and I have been together two years.  Scott still lives in a different city, but it is likely he will move to New Orleans in the next couple of months. Marc continues to date and is currently in what seems to be a steady and increasingly intimate relationship with one woman who lives in New Orleans. 

The big change since we last posted is that Marc and I no longer live together. 

I’m guessing that, for many of you, your first thought is, “Marc and Mimi broke up.”  For many of you, the next thing to pop into your mind might go something like this: “See.  I knew it.  Polyamory doesn’t work.” 

I’ve heard people make lots of assumptions about why Marc and I no longer live together and what it means, and for this “update” entry, I’d like to address some of the false conclusions people are making. 

False Assumption #1:  Mimi left Marc for Scott.
I did not “leave” Marc for Scott.  I made it very clear to Marc and Scott that I wanted to continue to be partnered with both of them.  I never chose one over the other.  

Marc realized that he did not want to be in a polyamorous relationship--not with me or anybody else.  Polyamory just did not work for him.  Marc, in other words, made a decision that he no longer wanted to be my primary partner as long as I am polyamorous.  

While many see this turn of events as Mimi choosing Scott, the more accurate description would be that Marc chose open but not poly and Mimi chose open and poly.  This is quite simply a fundamental incompatibility, not one of us ditching the other for someone else.

It’s true, I could have, in the face of Marc’s decision, broken up with Scott, and Marc did give me an ultimatum: It’s me or Scott.  But ultimately, it wasn’t about Scott. If it weren’t him, it would have eventually been someone else and we would have faced the same incompatability.  

It is no more reasonable for Marc to ask me to not be poly than it is for me to ask Marc to be poly when it just doesn’t work for him.  

The assumption that I must have left Marc for Scott is grounded in the mono-normative assumption that the couple is the default, so Mimi is now "coupled" with Scott instead of Marc.  

Scott has not replaced Marc.  He never has and never will.  No one could replace Marc.  I found being in relationship with both of them deeply fulfilling and that's what I wanted. Unfortunately, Marc decided it was not what he wanted. 

Scott and I are in an open relationship and there is no doubt in my or his mind that, if he and/or I are lucky enough to find other partners, we will once again try to make a polyamorous relationship work.  Neither one of us is seeing the change in my relationship with Marc as "coupling up" with Scott.  

False Assumption #2:  Polyamory was a failed experiment.

First, polyamory is not “experimental” for me, any more than a gay person having a relationship with someone of the same gender is “experimental”.  This is my life, not a trend or fancy like rollerblading or sailing.  I am very clear about this with Marc and Scott.  For right now, Marc doesn’t want to be in a polyamorous relationship and Scott does. I am no less committed to or desirous of doing polyamory.

More important, polyamory as a relationship form is not what caused my and Marc’s separation.  We no longer live together because I am polyamorous and Marc is not.  Polyamory works only when all parties are on board, and Marc and I just simply do not have the same commitment to polyamory.  This difference between us has created a tremendous amount of conflict.  Marc and I have never done conflict well, and the frequency and intensity of our conflict led us to separate our households.  Any incompatibility or crisis that caused discord in our relationship would have had the same outcome.  If it were incompatibility over money or the division of labor, most people would say "perhaps you are incompatible," or "maybe you should try a different approach."  Not many people would say that sharing expenses or splitting household chores is a failed experiment, would they?  

Here I have to say that the lack of social support made our incompatibility over how to do open polyamory more difficult than other, more common challenges people face in relationships.  There were very few people who said, “You can work it out.  Everybody struggles the first year or two.”  Instead, many people told us, Marc especially, that he was crazy to be doing polyamory.  Can you imagine if you and your partner or partners were really struggling over how to manage finances and everyone you talked to said, “You’re crazy to be financially inter-dependent? I think there’s something wrong with your relationship or your partner if she wants to actually open a joint checking account!”  Not exactly supportive and the lack of support made those negotiations very difficult and alienating. 

False Assumption #3: We Failed at Polyamory:

Polyamorous relationships, like all relationships, end because something in them does not work. All three of us, Scott, Marc, and I, made every effort to make our relationships work.  All three of us have made mistakes and grown from those mistakes. We did some things right, and we did some things wrong, just as is the case in all relationships. (And I will be writing about our mistakes, successes, and what I've learned from them in future entries) Given that we were all, for the most part, newbies, I think we were pretty successful for two years.  Marc and I deciding to have separate households is not a failure in doing polyamory, it’s a change in how we are doing our relationship. Which leads me to the last false assumption….

False Assumption #4: My and Marc’s Relationship Failed

Because we no longer live together as a couple, it must mean that our relationship is over.  This assumes that “successful relationship” means two people co-habiting and sharing a household forever. 

My and Marc’s relationship has changed, but it has not failed.  In fact, my and Marc’s relationship has been and continues to be an overwhelming success.  We both have learned and grown and had incredible experiences together, and I have no doubt that we will continue to do so in the future.  Marc and I will continue to be family to each other.  Though we no longer define each other as primary partners, we will continue to have a relationship of some kind.  That is not failure; that is simply change. When relationships change, it does not mean that what transpired before the change is any less significant or beautiful or that the change is deterioration or dissolution. 

At the heart of all of this talk of failure is the assumption that the long term, co-habiting couple is the only measure of relationship success.  I wholeheartedly disagree with this definition of relationship success. 

I see our decision to separate our households as yet another difficult, courageous, and loving thing we’re doing for each other.  Rather than force each other to be something we’re not and sacrifice our happiness for the sake of maintaining a relationship form that was not working for us, we’ve found a different path forward.

The night before I moved to my new house, I had a dream that Marc and I were climbing a mountain and lost each other in a storm.  I knew that there was nothing I could do for him or anything he could do for me.  I had to get myself out of the situation so that I could eventually find him again and continue together to the summit.  I woke thinking of this as a metaphor for our relationship.  We’re facing a very scary challenge, but neither he nor I have ever been people who shy away from a challenge.  We assess the situation, make good decisions as best we can, and move forward.

Change is difficult, but it is the reality of life. I refuse to believe that “staying together” can only mean living in the same domicile and that only one particular kind of relationship is “success”.  I can think of no better definition of success than loving each other enough to let each other be who we are and want to be, even if it means difficult change and an uncertain future.