A Theory of Polyamory, Part 1

Part 1, Trauma Informed

In the early 2000s, I had a relationship with Franklin Veaux, who would go on to write The Game Changer and to co-write More than Two. I am Amber in those books. The beliefs about intimacy that I both learned from him, and co-established with him during that time, created a framework for trauma for me, both in my relationship with him, and in another relationship I experienced years later that destroyed my sense of self and self-worth. It is also a framework that runs through More than Two and a lot of the discourse around Polyamory for the last 20 years.

For the last 8 years I have kept Polyamory on a shelf with the working title ‘Failed Experiment(?).’ But it is an unsatisfying title. I also had poly relationships that were fine. And I had poly relationships that were very stressful and painful, but not traumatic. I have been warily eyeing Polyamory for 8 years and asking ‘Why?’ Why was the soil so fertile for trauma? How was it so easy for me to turn on myself, with the full support of my partners and community? How did none of us recognize the damage that, in retrospect, was so obvious?

It has been in the quiet, miserable unease of the pandemic, and the bizarre security of being in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean, that I have had the space to think about this. And I have some things to say.

This is not, specifically, an account of my relationship with Franklin or anyone else. This is, quite specifically, about me. But it was important for me to establish context at the top, and to directly add my voice in support of the survivors of harm from Franklin, as well as all the voices in the polyamory community that have suddenly and permanently fallen silent over the years.

Can I tell you, one of my earliest and most vivid memories of my mom? It was two sentences, dropped out of the blue, though I’m sure I said something to give her a reason to lock eyes with me and speak slowly and carefully.

“It is important to figure out where you are going, First. And then after that you figure out who you are going to go with. Do you understand?”

Right there a river was carved through my internal landscape, and water started to flow, and it defined the mountains and valleys that formed around it. It is one of my most cherished beliefs and memories.

But don’t let me give you the impression that I know who I am. Because all I really understand is that where I’m going and who I am going with live in perpetual tension, and when I remember to figure out where I am going, First, I find that where I want to go is with other people. And when I am with other people, I sometimes forget where I am going, and in those moments it feels like I disappear.

Of course I don’t suffer this experience alone. The tension between self-determination and the need to connect with and care for other people is so fundamentally human. I have been reading a lot of relationship books lately. A lot. And often I feel like the authors are trying to get me to pick a side. As if it would be possible to relieve the tension. To give everything to a relationship, or to give everything to myself. As if the tension were the problem. As if the tension were a pathology to resolve, and not what everything else is built on.

Being human is uncomfortable. I don’t think we are meant to relax for long, though please, if you can, find ways to relax for short. If we can agree that discomfort isn’t a pathology, then we have a place to start. And with this as the starting place, let’s talk, at length, about how discomfort and damage are not the same thing.

When I was 18, I had an older friend who had wild curly red hair and lived in a three story apartment in San Francisco that didn’t have any furniture in it. She would say things like ‘I don’t believe in television, I only go to the cinema.’ She was incomprehensibly cool, and one day, she off-handedly said ‘oh, I don’t do monogamy — people shouldn’t own other people.’

Understand that this was the mid-90s, and I barely knew what a URL was, and being exposed to ideas like this required direct contact with other people. And this being my first exposure, I played it cool, but inside me was screaming ‘This is the thing! This thing! Do this thing!’

But also, I didn’t have any relationships, and non-monogamy wasn’t something that was available as an orientation selection on dating websites. It wasn’t clear to me how it could work, whether it would work, or whether this should fall under the same category as ‘wouldn’t it be cool if I had a pony that lived in my bedroom?’

I’m still not sure if I’ve ever experienced it working in a way where everyone is thriving, and not just surviving. I have a theory of polyamory that I have built over the years. And I understand, very clearly, that a lot of the assumptions my initial theory was built on were simply wrong. Wrong in a way that did persistent, long term damage to me and others.

So here is the question I would like to ask here, over several posts. What does a polyamorous framework look like where the people within it are thriving? What might a framework look like that is protective against harm and trauma? What are the guidelines, sanity checks, red flags, and full stops within this framework?

Because there are so many trauma anomalies in the current theory.

Part 2, The sexually transmitted locus of control

We, as a culture, understand control primarily through the lens of violence. We expect control to manifest as anger, aggression, and intimidation. The archetype of control assumes that an abuser consolidates power from other people and holds it for themselves.

How then could someone exert control, when, by all accounts, they exercise very little of their own agency in relationships?

Well, effectively and destructively it turns out.

Personal agency is your ability to take action towards a purpose. Typically personal agency is treated as something that is limited by external factors, internal beliefs, or developed skill. However, there is no reason why someone cannot choose to exercise various levels of agency, given the context. In polyamory, relinquishing your agency can help you dodge uncomfortable pressures. I have certainly felt the desire to point my finger anywhere but at myself under the crushing weight of multiple interpersonal rifts.

Closely related to personal agency is the locus of control. In a healthy relationship, all people should feel an internal locus of control — in other words, they should feel that they have some cooperative control over the trajectory of the relationship and over their life in general. Generally people are happier, more well adjusted, and more resistant to trauma when they have an internal locus of control and strong sense of personal agency.

I feel that it is important to make a distinction between personal agency and exercised agency, because when someone does not appear to be taking action in their life, I think it is easy to assume that they are powerless, and without power they cannot do harm. This assumption is wrong. A lack of exercised agency can be a core source of trauma in polyamorous relationships, because it rips the locus of control out of invested partners.

I say invested partners, because I am trying to differentiate relationships with a level of attachment that may trigger primal panic when threatened (For more on this, I highly recommend Polysecure), from those without expectations of consistent, attuned availability.

Here is one way that this dynamic can play out.

  1. A person with more than one partner (I will call them the central partner) demonstrates inconsistency and lack of dependability to people who are attached to them, eventually causing management behaviors from invested partners that emerge as a stabilizing tactic. Management behaviors could be things like scheduling, planning, setting limits for other relationships etc.
  2. The central partner (usually selectively) defers to these emergent management behaviors, often rotating who they defer to and eventually causing relationship decisions to feel externalized by everyone.
  3. This may amplify the attachment system of invested partners, causing them to experience primal panic, and continually scramble to stabilize an attachment they believe would otherwise be solid without external influence.
  4. People who perceive that the locus of control in their relationship is being held by another person may become very hostile towards them, they may shut down or withdraw, or they may try to force intimacy with them (fight, flight, freeze, befriend).
  5. The central partner moves responsibility for bad behavior onto other partners, and there is a rotation of recognized good behavior at the group level.
  6. Partners will start to heavily police themselves, and may group together to police individual others.
  7. Internal self-policing and external social shaming may eventually lead people tied up in the relationship(s) to engage in self-destruction when they believe their very self has drifted out of bounds in a way that threatens attachment and/or social belonging.

The end result of all of this is to shelter, justify, and ultimately perpetuate the harmful consequences of a lack of exercised agency. It may seem that the problem stems from a lack of availability, however in my experience the line between painful and traumatic is drawn with agency.

Navigating group dynamics with an externalized locus of control can be devastating in ways that are difficult for me to fully communicate. I have experienced it, and I have seen others experience it, and it is destructive and corrosive in a way that takes many years to recover from.

Is this the only (largely invisible) dynamic in polyamory that can lead to trauma? Most certainly not. Is this a problem? Hugely, yes. Do these dangers need to be studied and articulated?

Until they are, frankly, our working theory of polyamory is shit. I hope to explore some possible guardrails and safety checks against this kind of dynamic in a future post, but I can summarize here what I think is the most important defense against this dynamic.

No matter your responsibilities to other people, or your limitations in relationship, it must be you who says no, who sets limits and boundaries, and who disappoints. It must be you who chooses how you engage with your relationships, in a way that is informed by the choices you are making in your other relationships. It must be you who is present in every part of each relationship. If you can’t do that, please don’t do polyamory. The toll your partners may pay is incalculable.

For those who have paid this toll, let me finish on this thought. Self-damage and self-growth are not the same thing. They are, in fact, opposite things. When you are in a relationship, you should feel secure and safe. You should feel that more is possible for you, not less. A loving and supportive relationship should increase your feelings of self-worth and stability. Self-growth is not about continually suffering so you can learn how to never need or depend on someone. A relationship where you are unhappy is a relationship that is failing you, not one where you are failing to control your unhappiness.

If your experience with polyamory has left you feeling that states like safe, secure, calm, and nourished are impossible puzzles you cannot solve, then something is wrong. It’s worth trying to find a way that is right.