Read More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory Online

Authors: Franklin Veaux

Tags: #intimacy, #sexual ethics, #non-monogamous, #Relationships, #polyamory, #Psychology

More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory (6 page)

BOOK: More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory
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Eve and Peter have faced judgment and misunderstandings over their agreement, even from their closest friends. Peter is, by any objective measure, an absolutely wonderful human being, and Eve has more than once felt subtly shamed by mutual friends for denying him sexual access. She has been made to feel ungrateful or broken for not desiring him. She has even been told that their marriage isn't "real." (One well-meaning friend once commented, "It's so sweet that you still wear your wedding ring.") If that's the case, then millions of married couples are "not really married."

The only thing unusual about Eve and Peter is that their situation was mutually agreed to and they've chosen to talk about it openly. They want to share their story so that others in the same situation know there's nothing wrong with them, they are not alone and their relationships are still legitimate and "real."


What is a "romantic relationship"? What separates a nonsexual romantic relationship from an ordinary friendship? Can asexual people have romantic relationships? (Don't laugh; that last one is a question Eve and Franklin have both heard.)


says that romantic relationships are characterized by emotions of love, intimacy, compassion, appreciation and affinity. That definition is not very helpful, because many of us feel these same emotions, though perhaps to a different extent, for non-romantic friends. The idea that relationships are characterized by these emotions is a good starting point, but ultimately, we believe the definition of a romantic relationship is up to the people involved.

I have been in a relationship with my partner Amber for more than a decade. In the beginning, it looked pretty conventional: we lived together, shared a bed, sat down for dinner together at the end of the workday.
A few years later, she moved to a different town to pursue a graduate degree in neurobiology. Our relationship went from live-in to long-distance, but still kept many conventional markers of a romantic relationship. We visited often, sat down together when we could, and remained lovers.
Less than a year after that, I moved even farther away. Amber and I continued a long-distance relationship, but it became harder and harder. She was working on her master's thesis in bioinformatics and minoring in pure mathematics, so more and more of her attention became focused on her academic work, and less space was available for maintaining any romantic relationship, much less a long-distance one. I became accustomed to seeing her less often—twice a month, then once a month, then every six weeks.
Eventually, Amber came to me and said she didn't believe the sexual part of our relationship could continue. Her academic work was consuming her life, and her libido was feeling the effects of the stress. She said she was afraid that being open with me might be the end of our relationship, but she felt she needed to take sex off the table.
I really enjoyed being Amber's lover, and what she told me stung. But in truth, it didn't hurt as much as I expected it to. I have always admired Amber, and I believe very strongly in the work she's doing. I also believe just as strongly that sexuality must be consensual, and I don't want to have a lover who does not have the space or desire to be enthusiastic about being with me.
Most of our relationship changed surprisingly little. We still shared a bed when we visited each other, but just for snuggling and sleeping. We were, and are, still physically affectionate with one another. We still love each other greatly.
When I moved to Portland, the relationship became very long-distance indeed. It is still a romantic relationship, though. We still love one another, and we are still involved in one another's lives multidimensionally, to the degree we can be. We have exchanged rings. We still share intimacy. When she encountered turbulence in one of her other relationships, she was able to call on me for support, and I flew across the country to be with her. We share our hopes and dreams, joys and sorrows. We continue to be absolutely committed to each other's happiness. In all the ways that matter, Amber is still my partner. Our relationship does not look like conventional romantic relationships, at least not since the Victorian era, but one of the amazing things about polyamory is that we can chart our own course, defining our relationship to fit us rather than a cultural norm.

Franklin and Amber's experience shows that judging relationship success based on some arbitrary criteria makes less sense than judging success based on whether the people involved think the relationship is a success.


It's possible to be single and poly. It's possible to have only one partner and be poly. If your intention is to remain open to the possibility of multiple romantic relationships, you are polyamorous regardless of your current relationship status. Indeed, if polyamory is part of your identity (for some people, it is; for others, it isn't), you might be in a monogamous relationship and still be poly.

Is there a "right" number of partners to have to be poly? No. Is there a "right" number for
to have? Maybe. There is certainly some maximum. There's a saying among poly people: "Love is infinite; time and attention are not." It's debatable whether love is infinite; in practical terms, it probably isn't.
Time and attention definitely aren't. Different people have different constraints on the time and attention they can offer, and different relationships require different amounts, so some people can maintain more romantic relationships than others before they become, as the term goes, "polysaturated."

The number of partners you have room for can change. Some situations, such as starting a new job or caring for a baby or toddler, consume tremendous amounts of time and emotional space; it's normal to feel that you don't want to start a new relationship until more space opens up (though, hopefully, you will continue to nurture the ones you have). On the other hand, game changers happen; you may meet someone so amazing, so fantastic, that you are willing to rearrange parts of your life to create space for them. Game changers are disruptive, as we discuss in chapter 14.

* Cognitive scientists place a limit, determined by the size of our brains, on the number of individuals an animal is capable of having stable social relationships with: that is, remembering who each person is and how they connect to us and others. For humans this number, called "Dunbar's number" after the researcher who proposed this idea, seems to be somewhere around 150.


Because different people have different needs, and polyamory allows us to distribute our need eggs into more than one relationship basket, it is possible to maintain a relationship in a poly setting that otherwise might not survive. We've talked about how happy poly relationships can exist between people with mismatched sex drives or no sex at all. The same thing can happen when one partner is more sexually adventurous than another, and wants to explore being tied up, spanked, or some other kink that leaves the other cold. Maybe one person really likes ballroom dancing, but the other has two left feet. (Two of Franklin's partners love ballroom dancing, but he's never felt the bug.) One person may have a deep religious conviction not shared by the other. Polyamory offers an opportunity for different relationships to provide for different needs.

The danger here is seeing other people as need-fulfillment machines. When a need isn't being met, that need can feel bottomless, and it can be tempting to go out searching for a person to fill it. One of Franklin's partners calls this "Frankenpoly"—stitching together the perfect need-providing romantic partner out of bits and pieces of other people. We've also heard it called "Pokémon poly," after the idea that you need to collect a complete set of different kinds of partners.

When we begin to look at people in terms of what needs they can meet rather than as whole people in their own right, we start down the road toward treating people as things. A person you're with only because you get some need filled when you insert time-and-attention tokens is not a full romantic partner joining you on the journey of life. Which is not to say that any attempt to have different needs met from different people leads this way. A friend of Franklin's has a need for specific sexual kinks that aren't met by her husband, and she has had success in seeking other lovers who share this need. But those other lovers are romantic partners in their own right, valued for reasons beyond helping meet that need.

Some needs, though, don't lend themselves well to outsourcing. Needs for intimacy, for understanding or for companionship are often attached to the
we are in a relationship with; if we have those needs met by Alice, we may still need those things from Bob too.


Because there is no standardized template for polyamory, it's rare to see two poly relationships that look the same. We have observed, however, that strong, successful relationships do tend to have some things in common. Returning to our garden metaphor, no two gardens look the same, but all gardens need certain things to thrive: sunlight, air, soil, the right amount of water. What do poly relationships need to grow and thrive?

Something we've both heard often is "When I started exploring polyamory, the things I thought would be important and the things that turned out to be important were very different." We have found that poly relationships thrive most readily when they are free to change and adapt. When the people in the relationship are more important than the structure of the relationship—when they are free to advocate for their needs, to grow even in unexpected ways, when they feel a sense of personal empowerment over their relationships—the relationships themselves tend to be strong, resilient and happy.

As we discuss in chapters 4 and 8, it can be tempting, especially if you are new to polyamory, to try to script what your relationships will look like—to decide in advance what kinds of people you will place into what roles. People often do this to avoid dealing with issues like insecurity or fear of being left out. This approach treats people as interchangeable parts rather than as human beings with their own needs and desires. When we treat people as components to fit roles we have scripted for them, they are likely to feel disempowered, which plants the seeds for all kinds of trouble.

What almost invariably
work is to remain open to relationships in a wide variety of configurations, and develop tools for open communication, for advocating for your needs, and for acting ethically and compassionately no matter what form those relationships may take. As Eliezer Yudkowsky says, "You are personally responsible for becoming more ethical than the society you grew up in."


A great tool for finding, growing and maintaining good relationships is to think about the relationship that you want from the perspective of the people you'd like to attract. The flip side is asking yourself questions about what you're offering them. Some questions that might help:

  • What are my needs in relationships? Are they attached to specific people? That is, do I need these things generally, or do I need them just from certain people?
  • What configurations am I open to? Am I looking for a particular configuration because I'm afraid that others might be more scary or more threatening?
  • Am I flexible in what I'm looking for?
  • If my relationship changes, is that okay? Can I accommodate change, even unexpected change or change I don't like?
  • When I visualize the kind of relationship I want, how much space does it leave for new partners to shape the relationship to their needs?
  • Am I focusing on an idealized fantasy more than on making organic connections with real people?
  • What happens if I connect with someone in a way that differs from how I want my poly relationship to look? What message does that send to someone who doesn't fit neatly into my dreams?



The most vital right is the right to love and be loved.


We're not going to teach you the easy way to be poly. The tools we recommend will seem hard, because they are—at first. Like starting anything new, practicing polyamory comes with a steep learning curve, and requires a lot of hard work, as you build new skills and challenge old ways of thinking. Our goal is to equip you with the tools you'll need to grow strong, loving relationships.

Ethics are crucial to polyamorous relationships, and we believe it is worth developing an explicit ethical compass to guide us. That shouldn't be a controversial statement, but it is: many people believe that ethics do not exist in any absolute sense, that they are all culturally determined. Even if that's the case, well then, with polyamory, we're building a new culture. What kind of culture do we want to build? Those are our ethics. The ethics of nontraditional relationships are such a huge topic that we can only touch on them here. But this entire book is about conducting polyamorous relationships ethically, so we must explain what we mean by that.

BOOK: More Than Two: A Practical Guide to Ethical Polyamory
9.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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