By Robyn Trask
Reprinted from Loving More Magazine issue 35, Copyright 2005
One of the questions asked most frequently by polyamorous couples is “how do we make polyamory work for us while maintaining our relationship as a couple?” The question is easy; the answer is at once both simple and complex: You don’t!
Many people — myself included — are working to make their poly relationships viable and sustainable while using tools and ideas learned in a monogamous society. Bright-eyed couples searching for a lasting triad or quad partners who fit the couple’s perfect mold of poly paradise are using rules of the monogamy paradigm in their poly relating. This paradigm is programmed from years of books, movies, television and our parents. It is infused with subtleties of ownership, competition, and the notion that occupying the number one position in someone else’s eyes will somehow keep us fulfilled for a lifetime.
Jealousy is often seen as a sign of true love. Until recently, it was acceptable for a man to kill his wife and her lover if he found them in bed together. American culture thrives on relationship dramas based on classic love triangle stories where one person agonizes over the love they feel for two people. The two jockey for position, hoping to be chosen as number one. There is the fallout of lost trust and anguish because somehow, someone did not measure up in the end. This reinforces that the right kind of relationship fits into a simple formula: one male and one female. If we simply find this perfect person, we can all live happily ever after.
The clash of polyamory and monogamy paradigms is not new to the poly community. For instance, my partner and I, having been open from the start of our marriage, found our relationship struggling after twelve years of marriage. Some of the challenges were poly-related, and some were not. Our wonderful poly community was supportive, and with the best intentions recommended we back off from our outside relationships and work on our primary relationship. I have heard this advice given to many. Although it does make some sense, something was nagging at me. How was this going to help our poly marriage? Falling back into monogamy and shoring things up might be of some value, but what of our other partners? How would cutting off our other partners helps us to solve the challenges arising in our polyamorous marriage? I could never imagine someone recommending people solve their monogamous marriage challenges by being polyamorous for a while.
I have seen many people deal with related clashes in paradigms. Couple A, Jane and John, come into polyamory and started dating other partners. Three years later, Jane decided she was not really polyamorous and told John he must end his two-year committed relationship with Jill. Jane played the marriage/primary/number one card, threatening to leave if John did not conform and revert to the “normal” monogamy commitment. After all, the marriage was to come first.
Couple B, Sam and Steve, entered polyamory together, although Sam was reluctant. Steve, who had always considered himself polyamorous, dated Deb and Russ and finally got into a long-term partnership with Sandra. For two years everything was great. Sam was friendly with Sandra and they felt like a family. Then Sam met Lin and fell in love. Suddenly Steve found every reason why Lin was not acceptable and that Sam should give up Lin for the sake of their primary relationship. He felt perfectly justified because the primary relationship should come first.
Couple C, Ron and Peg, wanted a sister wife and were lucky enough to meet Cindy. At first all went well, but Ron started to have challenges when Peg and Cindy developed an extremely loving connection. They put the relationship with Cindy on “hold” so the primary couple could work on their issues. Cindy started seeing Bill. Peg and Ron were upset — they didn’t want Cindy to date as it doesn’t fit their defined triad. They expected Cindy to put the triad first while they put their coupledom first.
These are not real people — they are composites from people I have counseled or talked with over many years. The common thread in most of these situations is an underlying monogamy paradigm upon which poly relationships have been built.
There are many ways to have successful polyamorous relationships. There is more than one paradigm in which to view our polyamorous relating. These paradigms are often ingrained styles and/or belief systems that we operate often on autopilot. We rarely step back to see if the paradigm is appropriate for our current life choices or look at how we can adjust our paradigms if need be.
People come in to polyamory wanting more love in their lives. They come in to expand the people they can connect with socially, sensually, sexually, and to love. They come to poly with wounds that run deep from monogamous culture. These monogamous paradigms are the familiar tools; we fall back on them when strong emotions hit us.
Early on in my own poly dating, I met two wonderful men at the same time and for a week I agonized about who I would choose — and how. Then the thought occurred that I was polyamorous. Perhaps I could be looking at whether I could make two new relationships work rather than how to eliminate one.
You can come to polyamory and continue to put the “couple” first and safely operate from a monogamy paradigm. However, if you come to polyamory as a couple wanting the dynamic closeness of a committed triad or quad, then you have to let go of your coupleness. You must realize each person you encounter is a special and loving person who deserves to be treated with the equal consideration you give each other. The commitment has to be to the group, whether that group is a triad, a quad, or more. It is time to transform your relationships by transforming your paradigms from monogamy to polyamory.
How do we do this when we lack the basic tools of multi-partnered relating? Not all the answers are clear. We start by throwing away the old rulebook. When a new triad is having challenges, you work on each of the relationships. You do not put one on hold while the “couple” works out their issues. I made this mistake once when my partner and I were involved in a triad. My husband and I, as the married couple, were on the verge of a major explosion. He was having difficulties with the triad situation but not being honest with her or I about it. I stepped in to the rescue and put our relationship with her on hold. I did this to protect her — more so than to protect our marriage. I didn’t want to see her caught in the middle of our problems. In the process, I almost lost what has become one of the most important relationships in my life. I made a mistake of falling into monogamy patterns and paradigms to solve the polyamorous relationship challenges. I cut myself off from a partner and a great source of strength to deal with my primary partner’s dishonesty by myself. I was lucky in that the relationship with my female partner survived though it changed.
The relationship with my husband did not survive, as the issues ran much deeper then I realized at that time. I moved onto living in polyamorous ways of relating. He did not want this, and we could not find a way to compromise. I still love him. I love that I spent fourteen wonderful years living with him and raising children. I do not consider the ending as a failure. To me, viewing ending as a failure is an idea born of a monogamy paradigm. I am grateful that he was — and is — still a part of my life. I am glad of the wonderful connection we once shared, and of the triad we experienced that let me know what is possible.
I am moving into more open space and continuing to shift my paradigm. I still find myself falling into the monogamy mindset, such as finding it difficult to tell an established lover about a new one. I consider myself single since I live with only my children and have no one primary partner in my life. I am open to primaries but hope to allow that to happen naturally, if it happens at all. I feel more complete and happy than I have ever been before, and I love that I am open right now to so many new possibilities. I hope for the formation of a Loving More polyamorous network and community such as poly co-housing in Colorado. Finally, I continue to learn and be aware when I start falling into feelings of competition, ownership and possessiveness. These are not where I want to be, and I do my best to move through them and release them. I remain open to love, connection and all the sensual fun and pleasure polyamory offers.
There is no one right paradigm or right way to be polyamorous. However, one must choose which paradigm one wants to operate from. You can be polyamorous by putting your marriage or coupledom first and have good poly relationships as long as you are clear. It means a commitment to being primary to each other first and being clear about that whenever you involve another person in secondary or tertiary relationships, even if you are involved as a couple. This is where many people start their poly journey as they venture into new territory. Keep in mind though that you can shift to a different paradigm any time you choose. If you are putting the couple first, don’t expect others to put the triad or quad first. Be honest if you want total openness and equal partnerships or simply relationships that are secondary to the primary couple or couples.
Paradigms rarely mix well and it is helpful to keep this in mind. One half of the couple operating from established-couple-first paradigm and the other half operating from all-relationships-equal will create challenges. This often happens in the same person. They want their partner putting them as a couple first while they put their polyness first. In my experience, this leads to tremendous pain and drama. Be honest and reasonable with each other. Find what works for you personally, and then negotiate honestly with your partners.
Remember that changing a paradigm is changing a deeply held and entrenched way of being, acting and reacting. It is a process and it takes time and knowing what you want. I personally struggle with these issues almost every time I get caught up in NRE (New Relationship Energy). I pay special attention to maintaining my existing connections when a new love shows up — even when it might move to a primary partnership. I have to keep in mind that my true primary relationship is my inner spirit and that polyamory is part of that path. From this place, I can integrate all of who I am and give totally to the people I choose as my partners and my lovers. And one day, from this space, I hope to take part in creating an extended polyamorous community to keep the dance of love and connection present and alive in my life.
Looking at assumed paradigms and possible paradigms gives us the opportunity to make choices and the gift of acceptance of others. With this knowledge, we can move forward, and honestly create sustainable polyamorous relationships that work for all involved.