A Theory of Polyamory, Part 3

(see parts 1 and 2 here)

Part 3, Please stop trying to do intractable math with your feelings

One of the worst cases of the flu I have ever had started on date night. Not my date night.

Everything was stretched so thin in that relationship. One man, four women, no room for error. One missed date night in one relationship could lead to relationship starvation and deep resentment. One missed night could kick off weeks of conflict. One night that I ‘took away’ from someone else, would have a cost for me that I did not want to pay. Did I really need it? Was I being selfish? Was this an act of sabotage, control?

Just ask for what you need. If you don’t ask for what you need, you can’t ever get what you need.

Seriously, just Fuck You.

I don’t like being alone when I’m sick. I feel fragile, fearful. It is one of those times when I want to confirm that I am safe and looked after. It is also one of those times when maybe I will be too weak to stand, when I need someone to bring me water and help me walk to the bathroom. As I sat in front of the toilet, sweating, they said their goodbyes and went out to dinner. I didn’t ask for them to stay. It’s just the flu. I will be fine.

We went on a trip once that required a flight across the country. I’m a nervous flyer and I did not want to sit alone, but there were a maximum of two spots next to him. I ended up taking one of them, but rather than feeling stabilized by his presence as the plane took off, I circled around and around in my head — was it worth it to ask for this seat? What would I pay for this? What concessions did I need to make to make up for it? Had I spent all my chips, leaving me without the ability to ask for help at a later date?

Shortly after that trip, a monogamous friend of mine went on a trip to Ireland. She posted picture after picture of her and her husband smiling in front of… sheep mostly, if I recall correctly. The smiles were so relaxed and authentic. What would that be like? I thought. I couldn’t even imagine getting that much of my partner’s time and attention. If I got it, I couldn’t imagine not being wracked with anxiety over the relationships that weren’t in frame.

Vaguely, I understood that relationships needed some time and attention, but the narrative we agreed on was that needing attention outside of the prescribed schedule was a character flaw that should be managed by the person with the need.

Why did we all settle on this narrative? Well, partly because it was the only one that made the math work. A relationship structure that was stretched so thin was not one that could provide spontaneous support to anyone without a high cost.

When I first started going to poly meetups in the early 2000s, I would sometimes hear people sagely say ‘love is limitless, but time and energy are not,’ like it was some hard fought bit of wisdom and not the most obvious thing in the fucking world.

Contemporary poly books will usually give a nod to this — like, hey, just keep time and energy limitations in the back of your mind as a possible explanation if your entire life is falling apart. I think it’s hard to really put this idea out front in discussions about poly because then we might have to grapple with the idea that a lot of people with jobs, hobbies, friends, and families might be polysaturated at romantic_partners=1 (or 0) — and you, poly person, might be one of those people. And I think this is uncomfortable, because it violates the promise of poly that you won’t have to say no to love anymore.

But the thing is, you will have to say no, even if your ‘no’ is just manifested through neglect (which is an incredibly shitty way to say no). And I think we should talk more about this.

One of the most toxic messages in The Game Changer is that somehow we get an ethical pass to bulldoze our existing commitments if we feel romantic love, and that if our existing partner(s) can’t accommodate that, then they are the asshole. As the ‘Game Changer’ in that book, I feel uniquely qualified to call bullshit on this particular message. Relationships end sometimes. We get to leave them for literally any reason, and when we leave relationships, the people we leave get to feel any way they want towards us. It’s ok to leave someone because you want your life to look a different way, or god forbid you would rather spend your time with someone else. But dynamically re-allocating huge chunks of time and energy for new intense romantic connections just because they are intense romantic connections and thinking no one will be damaged by this is dumb.

We all have to develop the skills to say no to things we want

The beautiful thing that being poly has done for me, is to uncouple shame from love. Toxic monogamy tells me that feeling love for someone outside of my romantic relationship is bad, that it needs to be controlled, and then extinguished.

If there is one central reason why I was drawn to poly, it was because I could not stomach that shame and the self abuse required to keep my feelings in line. Every person I have loved, either close up or at a distance, has changed me. Love for me is a sacred space where we can share, and witness, and grow, and see ourselves new. However, rejecting that shame is not the same thing as getting a free pass to invest the time and energy to develop and further new love without consequence.

Time and energy are finite. Really finite. For most of us, spending time and energy on a new thing requires re-allocation from something we also want to be spending time and energy on. Sometimes being a safe harbor for someone means agreeing to not fucking do that without really, really weighing the consequences.

And I think that means that sometimes you have to say no to things that you feel very motivated to say yes to. And maybe that means being creative about the ways that love can touch your life, so that you can honor the love you feel without torching the things you have already built.

The fact that saying this makes me feel like a bitter monogamist who doesn’t really understand what poly is about means that 20 years ago I might have bought some swampland in Florida that I couldn’t even pitch a tent on. So with all nods to poly people who are building stable and secure relationships through understanding the needs of those relationships and their own limitations, I guess where I’m at right now is sitting with the following question: What would a description of poly look like that recognizes that sometimes we have to say no, to the same things that monogamous people say no to, often the same reasons? And why does this feel like defeat?