What follows is a rough collection of notes from a PILSAR meeting that took place on 26/6/2016. Facilitated by Uri Baruchin & Meg John Barker. It’s a loose combination of the facilitators’ prep notes and ideas/strategies suggested by the group. In the session, we divided into smaller which discussed different aspects of the subject. The following isn’t a conclusive summary, but should give readers a good idea of some of the aspects discussed.
Why do people choose solo-poly?
When solo-poly is a choice, as opposed to just being a single person who is poly (this used to be one of the definitions of what ‘solo-poly’ meant, but it seems in the last couple of years this is no longer the case), we identify some common themes in motivations/dynamics/personalities that lead people to choose (or find themselves as) solo-poly:
- A high value put on freedom and autonomy (theirs and other’s).
- Life goals / lifestyle / life work, which conflict with the demands of more enmeshed relationships
- Self-care strategies which require a higher degree/quantity solitude, whether related to MH issues or not.
- A focus on boundaries and integrity of the self. Occasionally for people who find those hard to maintain/sustain when in a relationship and feel safer with the increased autonomy of solo dynamics.
- Introverts, at least in the sense that need significant alone time to recharge.
- Trying to control levels of emotional labour (given or received)
How Solo-poly challenges both heteronormativity and polynormativity
While polyamory and other forms of ethical non-monogamy challenge the central myths
Of heteronormativity, solo-poly people challenge not only heteronormativity but also polynormativity. (for more detailed discussion of the myths see MJB’s Rewriting the Rules or Enduring Love).
- The myth of the one:
Heteronormative version: you’ll meet one person who is perfect or nearly perfect for you, you will fulfil most of each other’s emotional needs etc.
Polynormative version: similar, once a specific polycule/constellation is found and achieved.
Solo-poly challenge: there’s no ‘the one’ or ‘the ones’. Often hierarchies and ‘couple privilege’ are questioned or rejected.
- The relationship escalator
Heteronormative version: relationships tend to follow the same set of predetermined milestones, in a mostly linear way (e.g. dating, meeting each other’s friends/parents, cohabiting, uniting finances, marriage, children etc.) and either move forward or end.
Polynormative version: may include many of the hetero milestones above plus poly specific ones like meeting other partners, dating together, cohabiting with more than one person…)
Solo-poly challenge: often is less linear and seeks a creation of personal map, co-authored by the people involved and defining what are meaningful mile-stone moments.
- The myth of happily ever after:
Both Heteronormative and Polynormative versions: relationships have an ideal end-state that usually follows the fulfilment of the first two myths which is permanent and unchanging. Fundamental changes to that ideal end-state are seen as failure.
Solo-poly challenge: a common view is that relationships grow organically, are dynamic, with roles shifting and changing. Periods of fundamental change (e.g. a sexual partner becoming a non-sexual partner) are sometimes referred to as ‘transitioning’.
Note that the above challenges do not assume there’s a solo-poly ideal/normativity, which leads us to the next section…
The spectrums of solo-poly
Like with many alternative lifestyles, solo-poly is a term which covers a variety of identities, lifestyles and practices. We can think about them as spectrums, with one side end relating to the normative coupled/‘enmeshed’ model of relationship and the other towards the solo alternative.
This, of course, doesn’t mean some of these are better/worse or more/less solo-poly than others. Overall we should acknowledge that quite often people feel that they’re are not ‘X enough’ (X being poly, solo-poly, RA, etc) and that new normativities (‘crab buckets’) form which people might feel excluded by.
As you’ll see from the spectrums and the questions, there’s a seemingly endless number of potential configurations once you break away from heteronormativity or even just polynormativity. Some solo-poly definitions out there will give you a feeling that some of the following are either/or choices. We believe this isn’t the case.
- Space (& nesting): whether and how we share living space. Living with partner, with partner and others, with partners, with just others, alone? Do we have/prefer our own room in such a space or not? What’s our preference of proximity geographically to our people? This is often an issue related to questions of privilege as attaining ‘solo-space’ is often related to financial status.
- Time: how much time do we like to spend with people at different levels of closeness? Divided into everyday time and specific you-and-me time, time just us and time with others, how much solo time do we need? How do we prioritise our times with ourselves and our time with others?
- Finances: how much do we share these with one or more others? What are our agreements about them? E.g. entirely separate finances, a joint account for bills/rent but nothing else, some overlap some separate, or pooled finances. If we lend/give somebody else money do we expect it back with interest, back within a time period, back but only if they can afford it, or just a sense that they’d do the same for us if and when circumstances were reversed.
- Emotional support: are we happy to be somebody’s main source of emotional (and/or physical) support? What about more than one somebody? What are our expectations of support from others when we are ill or struggling? What are theirs of us? How much can we offer? What are the limits on that? How solo do we need to be when ill or struggling? Do we communicate that to others? (relates to how many people we have at various levels of closeness, whether there is any sense of hierarchy, whether we distinguish partners/lovers/friends or not, whether we’re on an escalator regarding closeness)
- Sex/physical affection: how much is this altogether a part of any given relationship? How much is solo sex/physical part of our relationship with ourselves? How able are we to have sex only if/when we want to? How much does it feel like something that needs to happen in order to retain this relationship? Is solo time necessary for tuning into our desires and having self-consent?
Stereotypes vs. reality
As many aspects of society require collaboration and forms of hierarchy, there’s always been high levels of policing and shaming when it came to culture’s view of solitude. We find that many stereotypes of solitude are closely related to stereotypes of solo-poly:
- Solitude is self-indulgent/anti-social/narcissistic (…and so are solo-poly people) …
…In fact, solo-poly people can be as aware, generous, and social as others.
- Solitude means you’re lonely and sad and largely broken. Being a lone is a form of failure and people only choose it once they have no options left…
…In reality, choosing to be solo can be the opposite of compromise and a sign of a larger ambition, the opposite of compromise. Many people discover solo after trying the more traditional models and not necessarily ‘failing at them’. (e.g. after many years of ‘successful’ monogamy)
- People who are alone by choice avoidant and commitment-phobes…
…Not only this isn’t true, but in fact solo-poly people often attract people with such behaviours and suffer from it, because people who fear commitment and enmeshment may see them as less threatening
- It’s the choice of neo/liberal and hyper-individualistic people…
… in fact many solo people put friends and their community/network at a higher place than coupled people, it’s often a choice easier to make outside coupled/enmeshed relationships.
These stereotypes often lead to solos being mistreated. (incidentally, because of couple privilege the sexual mistreatment of solos has some shared patterns with that often experienced by unicorns).
These and other challenges make it useful to learn from successful strategies developed by other solo-poly people.
Here’s a short list of some of the ideas mentioned in the discussion:
Being a successful solo (warnings/strategies/troubleshooting/tips)
- Build a support network – both of other solo-polys and of people who respect your choice.
- Watch out for couple privilege (including financial)
- If you’re dating people who never dated solo people before and especially when dating people with limited experience of ethical non-monogamy, be aware of a higher risk of disappointment/heartbreak.
- Try to accept the time you spend with partners may not always be perfect, especially when you don’t see them often.
- Try and take note of things you spend time on during the day/week/month/year and when that fluctuates so you can better predict when you might need more time for yourself.
- Be aware if someone is hosting you a lot and the financial implications of this for them.
Communicating your needs to others (and yourself)
- If possible, try to let people know how you ‘do’ relationships early in the relationship so they know what to expect.
- Let people know that they shouldn’t assume someone’s level of need for emotional support based on how much alone time they need (and don’t do it to yourself or others)
- Get to know yourself, your needs and ways in a relationship:
- You may find it useful to write your own relationship ‘User guide’. Make a ‘manual’ or zine about yourself including important things friends and partners might need to know about you. Firstly for yourself. And then mindfully share it, or parts of it, with others.
- Take some time out to think about what your hard and soft limits are in relationships and decide what is non-negotiable and what is up for discussion.
- Record things you’re finding difficult or challenging over time in a journal
- Beware people who may find you disposable (e.g. a short-term solution to their emotional/sexual needs) – assert your ambitions and approach clearly and honestly. Even well-meaning people may unconsciously assume you don’t have ‘normal’ needs for things like commitment and emotional support.
- On the other hand – be aware you might inspire worries/anxiety in people who rely on the myths (see above) for comfort, so if you care about them – you may find you need to inspire confidence through communication and kindness.
- If possible, let people know roughly how long you can spend with them before you will need alone time.
- If this is not possible, try and devise a way to check-in that you still want to be in each other’s company.
- When checking in, give the other person time to think about their re
- If possible, ask for some time to think about your response.
- Check-in with yourself to see if what is being proposed is OK with you.
- If you are in relationships with people who find it difficult to assert their needs, try and facilitate this. This could include online messages, text, letters, drawing, rating out of 10 how much of a certain emotion they’re feeling, describing physical sensations.
- Make room for a discussion about how willing/able you are to meet your partners’ close ones.
- Agree a location to have difficult conversations as you may prefer somewhere more neutral like a park. While this may seem like a general tip, it’s important in relationships where there typically isn’t a common, neutral, space.
- Overall, encourage organic growth of your relationships through action and communication. Help the other side question their assumptions in a kind way (e.g. gently remind them that a lot of the things they fear they might not get from you have nothing to do with Solo-poly)
Some people will find themselves solo for a period by circumstance or by choice. There’s a lot they can learn from solo-poly experience, but those who consciously choose it as a way of life are in a different situation overall.
We believe even people who aren’t solo-poly at all can still learn from that experience, because of overlaps with autonomy, self-care, the question of solitude etc. Plus – you may find yourself in a relationship with a solo-poly even if you’re not one yourself…