Monogamy, monogamish, polyamory, relationship anarchy, solo polyamory, non-hierarchical polyamory, triad, unicorn, polycules, poly quads, co-dependency…
All of these labels have had a time and place in my life; they’ve allowed me to explore different ideas and assumptions around relationships. But increasingly, I feel like they can often stand in the way of understanding how we actually practice relationships.
It doesn’t matter how many people you fuck, or who; how many people you write love letters to, or how you rank people or don’t rank people in your life. None of these labels, or any number of people you are intimate with will describe a more or less radical, ethical, or in any way a “better” – more political or ethical way of doing relationships.
Because the fact is, whether you define as polyamorous, monogamous, relationship anarchist, in a triad, or a solo polyamorist, these definitions can be practiced in endless different ways. Just because you can go everywhere, doesn’t mean you will or you should. And just because you have sex with one or none person, doesn’t mean you would secretly want to. Freedom is more complicated than this.
Importantly, these labels also don’t necessarily say anything about our politics. Love and relationships are deeply political, but rarely recognized as such. The way these are practiced in society works to uphold white, hetero, cis, able-bodied normativity and patriarchy. Just take a moment to write down the (perceived) race, gender, sexuality, class, body and geographical background and identity of people you have been in close relationships with. Do you see a pattern?
If we want to practice relationships in a non-oppressive way, then we need to start questioning our pattern of attraction, the way we practice love (how are society’s inequalities reproduced in our relationships; who is doing what?), and how do our relationships reproduce the nation-state, ideas of law and obedience, and the neoliberal work ethic?
Ultimately, no matter what label we use for ourselves we always need to prioritise- between work, social events, hobbies, different relationships, political causes and ourselves. Life is constant negotiation, development, and change of needs and desires. And because things evolve, we need to keep re-arranging the puzzle pieces in our lives to make things match up again, differently. In the re-matchings, we will inevitably hurt others as we fail to match their needs, and get hurt as others fail to match our needs. There is no doing away with this, but it is the reality of being a human with complex and ever-changing emotions. Equally however, this is why and how we will also have amazingly connected experiences with people. If we didn’t have the potential to get hurt, be bored, be dissatisfied, feel disconnected, we also wouldn’t have the potential to feel excited, inspired, loved, and intensely connected. We need the ups and downs, otherwise everything would be bland and the same.
So perhaps, the best thing we can do is to try to be open to uncertainty and change- sometimes we will need a lot of people to be intimate with, sometimes we will need lots of sex, sometimes we might want to explore what is termed “kink,” sometimes we will need a lot of time to ourselves.
And if we want to relate ethically to others, we need to be honest with ourselves about our needs and abilities, and communicate those in a non-violent way. Maybe, along with things like sex menus (google this!) that help to communicate to others what our needs are in sex, we could also try to-for ourselves and others- to write “how we do relationships.” This could describe our general needs in relationships, and what we are looking for, as well as how much of each element you need in order to feel connection on another element (i.e. do you also want a lot of emotional intimacy with people you have sexual intimacy with; is it important to be flexible in order for you to feel romantic?) Some things that we can consider in terms of relationships might be:
– Intimacy (do you generally find it easy to be vulnerable with people? Do you have/need many people in your life to share your emotions with? Or do you prefer one?)
– Contact (do you like being in touch with people a lot through text, whatsapp, phone calls, do you need this type of contact from more people?)
– Sexual/physical/kink needs (do you want a lot of sex rn? What kind of sex? Are you generally into sex? Do you easily feel pressurized? Is sex a way for you to get close to people? How do you feel about other type of physical touch? And how do you feel about PDA? Do you need people to do kink stuff with?)
– Politics (how much time and space do you give to campaigning or activism? Is it important for you that you spend time with people who share your commitments and ideas?)
– Work commitments (what is your work like and what role does it play in your life? What kind of impact does it have on your relationships?)
– Intellectual needs (i.e. are you looking for people to start projects and explore ideas with?)
– Silliness/Chillness (do you have a big need for just being- cook, and fool around with, go out playing and dancing with?)
– Adventures and activities (do you want to do lots of things, like going to events and going away? )
– Life enmeshing (are you looking for one or more people to share living, food, practical things, and holidays with?)
– Music/gigs/culture (are you looking for emotional labour/holding space/MH needs (do you have a lot of care and emotional labour to give? Or do you feel precarious and like you need people around you who are more stable and have a lot to give?)
– Security/jealousy/MH (how confident are you generally? What kind of things tend to make you feel insecure or jealous? What are your insecurity triggers?)
– Romance (what do you consider romantic? Do you want more of it or do you not like or experience romance at all? Can you only have it with one person at a time? Do you have time and headspace for romance currently?)
– Flexibility/stability needs (are you someone who likes to plan stuff far in advance? Or do you need people around you who are flexible with plans and who can understand)
So, this might seem a bit daunting, Relating to others is the essence of life and politics- but who said life was easy? And who said easy was fun?
Good luck, and have fun with the uncertainty J
The Golden Triangle of Mental Health, Holding space, and Emotional Labour in relationships- by Josefin Hedlund
A common remark you often hear from monogamous folks when you talk about polyamory is “that sounds great, but I could never do that”. What they refer to is often that ever-recurring ghost of jealousy, but often they also just mean that it sounds hard- i.e. that the more intimate relationships you have, the more work you have to do. These are ideas that are also reproduced and held by poly people, and you sometimes hear about the need to “take a break from poly”, and people who tried it but it “was too much work” because its not compatible with mental health needs.
While I do agree that of course any marginalized identity in society is going to come with difficulties that you won’t experience if you are the majority, I also really think we need to resist and fight the idea that non-monogamous relationships are inherently more difficult.
I, for one, find it much more easy to be non-monogamous than to try to force myself to fit into the artificial monogamous scripts.
However, what I do think we need to seriously consider in relating to people are our mental health needs, our capacity and need for emotional labour, and our capacity and need for holding space. Let me explain how I see these three components:
Emotional labor: this seems to be on everyone’s lips currently. It refers to routinized behavior such as picking up on, and considering, how other people are feeling, planning and sorting out practical issues (dates, food shopping and planning, holidays, buying and planning presents), listening to, empathizing with, and validating other people’s feelings, picking up on and respecting, as well as trying to meet, other people’s needs, providing emotional support and advice. This is part of particularly women and femmes automatic behavior, as we are taught to practice these skills from childhood.
Holding space: this is a more extreme form of emotional labor, that you can do for someone in more concentrated way. You allow someone to have all their feelings without them having to consider your feelings (this also requires that you are able to not get affected personally). Holding space is something that care professionals like therapists, nurses, but also what parents and people caring for someone in a crisis (MH or otherwise) have to do. This can also be something that you do through organizing events, where other people are able to explore themselves and their feelings.
Mental Health, self-awareness and privilege: how well are we able to communicate and listen to our needs? How stable do we feel? Do we need a lot of care, emotional space? Or are we able to help others with providing care, emotional space etc so that they can grow? If we are part of a very privileged group that doesn’t experience a lot of discrimination and hardship in society, then it seems feasible to expect that we do more of the “holding space” and emotional labor for other more precarious groups.
“The golden triangle” then is about getting the balance between these different elements right, through the relationships around you. Everyone doesn’t have to provide equal amounts of emotional labor, and holding space, as long as we are all getting our needs met from somewhere, and as long as we work hard to make sure that we are trying to resist when these things are divided unequally along some unexamined gender lines, rather than along needs and abilities. Even if you are good at providing emotional labor, perhaps what you actually need is for other people to hold space for you so that you can practice your feelings. If your mental health is poor, you’re going to be able to do less of the holding space and emotional labor for others, and it might not even be responsible for you to try to do these things.
Having several intimate relationships with people who are relatively stable and can “hold space” for you in a poly set-up might be a lot easier mental health-wise for both you and the people around you if you are going through a difficult time. Equally, if you easily feel insecure and jealous when others around you have other romantic and sexual relationships, then it might be better to focus on relationships with people who don’t have that so that you can avoid being triggered. If you easily succumb to others emotions and needs, it might be better to take time to really listen to your own needs for a while, and this might mean a distancing from closeness and intimacy with others, while you might just focus on pure one-way “holding space” relationships, such as for example that with a therapist