Thursday, August 28, 2008

Secondary Trouble in Poly/Mono Land

Recently someone wrote to an e-mail group I'm on describing a difficult relationship situation she's in. She has a poly partner whose wife is monogamous. She believed the wife to be consenting, but it turns out that her relationship with the husband is creating drama in an already rocky marital relationship. To make matters worse, it's an LDR (long distance relationship.)

I felt a lot of sympathy reading her story. It's very difficult being involved with someone who's married and whose marriage isn't in good shape. I was once there myself, and since that time I have placed a high priority on determining the health of the other relationships of anyone with whom I'm thinking of getting involved. Same for the relationships my primary gets into, since discord in such relationships can have what I refer to as the ripple effect. If my sweetie and his sweetie are in crisis because of conflict in *her* other relationship over his and her relationship, it may affect my sweetie's mood, the amount of emotional energy he has available for me, etc.

From what I heard in her story, there were two primary issues - (1) the dysfunction in her poly partner's marriage, and (2) her partner's wife's tendency to try to control the husband's secondary relationship. These can be and likely are related, of course, but they are also issues that must be dealt with separately as much as possible.

Obviously the girlfriend is limited in what she can do about how the husband and wife relate to each other other than offer support and encouragement without taking sides (more on that below). But she has more power to affect her relationship with the wife.

I was in a primary relationship with a man who also had another love to whom he was very close. She and I just didn't click, but what we did agree on was that we wanted him to be happy and that we both needed to respect each other's place in his life in order for that to happen. She, too, was a committed poly person, which made coming to that understanding easier.

I recommended that the poly girlfriend invite her guy's wife to lunch if she could manage to travel to their area or at least to have a telephone conversation. Barring that, she could at least write her a letter. Face to face is always best, as it's a lot less easy to villify the other person or make mistaken assumptions about their meaning, since we can ask for clarification right there on the spot. But if the wife isn't willing, she could still communicate with the wife by e-mail.

As an aside, I pointed out that it's important to talk with the poly boyfriend/husband before proceeding so as to make sure the timing is optimal. It wouldn't be good to begin this process when the wife is having a bad day.

Whatever the means of communication, it could go a long way to express and affirm respect for the marital relationship, good wishes for its wellbeing, and commitment not to do anything to interfere with or undermine it. This would be the right place to ask for the same in return. The girlfriend could also invite the wife to share, if wife is willing, what she fears, and the girlfriend could ask how she can help the wife to feel more comfortable with her presence in the poly husband's life. If the girlfriend can do this with sincerity and patience, she may be able to make some progress with the wife. And because husband and wife are having problems with their relationship, the poly girlfriend could also commit specifically not to take sides in their conflict, to offer her support when and as appropriate, and to pledge to stay out of it beyond that.

I recommended that the girlfriend tell wife that she hopes to develop a sense of trust between them. This is accomplished first with words, and then by backing them up with behavior that demonstrates sincerity, integrity and trustworthiness.

Girlfriend may have to be the one to take the high road on all this if she is willing. Hopefully wife can/will rise to the occasion and do the same. It may not go perfectly, and there may be missteps along the way that require respectful, patient, heartfelt communication and forgiveness, but tenacity and a will to make it work on the girlfriend's part without crowding wife too much may well eventually make girlfriend's presence in husband's life not much of an issue for the wife.

These recommendations were made only to the extent that girlfriend can implement them with honesty and sincerity, of course. Only she knows what she can and can't authentically offer to her poly boyfriend's wife.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Help Jefferson and Help Poly Parents with Child Custody Challenges

Jefferson is a bisexual man in New York City who is well known in the sex-positive, open relationship community. He is the father of four children of whom he shares custody with his ex-wife. Some time ago his ex came upon a no-longer-public blog he kept about his lifestyle activities. Despite the fact that he is an excellent father and in no way permits his children to come in contact with that aspect of his life, his ex-wife now seeks sole custody and a dramatically reduced visitation schedule based solely on his sexual orientation and form of sexual expression.

Jefferson wisely contacted Valerie White of the Sexual Freedom Legal Defense and Education Fund, and SFLDEF is accepting contributions on his behalf to fund this very costly child custody battle. I'd be surprised if his ex isn't also asking him to pay her attorneys fees on top of his own.

Jefferson also wisely contacted Leigha Flemming of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom who assists parents facing child custody challenges on a routine basis.

Please consider making a contribution to this man's legal fund by visiting the SFLDEF website. There is a link there where you can pay via Paypal - you will be able to designate your contribution to go to the Jefferson fund.

If you are in New York City, please consider attending the fundraiser being held for Jefferson tomorrow, Wednesday, August 27.

Child custody is by far the greatest legal problem facing people in open relationships. This could be a landmark case if Jefferson wins, so investing in Jefferson is a great investment for poly parents who may face similar challenges in the future.

Jefferson has a blog where you can keep up with this story.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Nature of Jealousy: The Whys and Hows and Whos

I'm researching jealousy in order to expand my understanding and teaching materials and write a book on the subject. I've presented a program on making peace with jealousy in polyamorous relationships probably 20 times or more over the last few years and have helped others deal with jealousy in their lives more times than I can count. So I've heard a lot of personal stories. What I know about the subject is partly from personal experience, partly from the experiences of others, and partly from what I've read from those who are experts in the field.

I even have references - check out Avah's comment to the blog entry on jealousy here. I've never before been referred to as "the sh*t", at least not to my knowledge and not in a good way. (grin)

It is well documented that jealousy is indeed hard wired into humans. Even Oprah's expert, Dr. Gail Saltz, said this on an episode that included a poly couple and recently re-aired. She actually acknowledged that humans are not hard wired for monogamy, but she cautioned that what we *are* hard wired for is jealousy and possessiveness. (More about the hard-wiring she references below.) The fact that jealousy is inate is observed even in little children, who must be taught to share toys, their mothers, etc. My daughter is preparing for that challenge with her entirely self-centered 2 y.o. (self-centeredness being consistent with what is known about 2 year olds and early childhood development) when the baby she is expecting arrives at the end of the year, for example.

My understanding thus far is that jealousy is a primitive emotion that originates in the amigdula, a/k/a the reptilian brain, which is also responsible for our fight or flight response. It developed/evolved as a protective mechanism over the millenia, with anthropologists believing it served primitive humans at a time when mates and resources necessary for safety and survival of the family and the species were scarce and the world was a very dangerous place. Yet survival of the species also depended on humans spreading their reproductive resources around in a very non-monogamous fashion. This explains how it is that we can quite happily have more than one mate ourselves while at the same time feeling uncomfortable sharing a mate with others. IT IS NOT A RATIONAL IMPULSE - but it is a human one.

It is also well documented that human biology hasn't changed over the millenia enough for it to make any noticeable difference as far as our base instincts and emotions are concerned. Certainly we are much more highly civilized than our ancient ancestors, and we can and do control our emotional and behavioral reactions to a large degree, but just about everyone struggles from time to time with the emotions that make up jealousy. They are a natural part of being human, but that doesn't mean we must remain at their mercy and have them ruin our relationships.

Also, that doesn't mean that everyone feels jealous. Some people, a minority, seem to be immune, and the reasons for that are not well understood. I suspect that those lucky people who don't experience it find polyamory especially appealing, and for obvious reasons, so it's not uncommon to encounter people in our community who say they never feel jealous. It's a lot less of a challenge for them.

Certainly social conditioning plays a role in how we experience and express jealousy. Our society reinforces it and even idolizes and makes a fetish of it in some ways. It tells us when we are little that there is one special person out there who we will find one day, who is our soul mate with whom we will live happily ever after. No wonder we get jealous when we perceive a threat after we think we've found "the one." Jealous partners are often encouraged to act out their anger, especially if they've been wronged by a partner who has broken a promise of monogamy. It's everywhere, in our popular music, movies, TV, books, magazines. In fact, it is so common and so much taken for granted that most of us don't even give it much thought when it is part of a story line. So as I like to say, we are all marinated in a culture that tell us from an early age that jealous feelings are OK and even justified. In some ways it is put up on a pedestal - as recently as the early 1970s, a man who killed his wife who he caught with another man was not guilty of murder in the State of Texas but instead of a lesser crime. (Women, however, WERE guilty of murder, hence another reason that law is now history.)

As to the part insecurity and low self-esteem play, yes, these are another layer of complexity in the way jealousy is expressed and resolved (though they are far from the sole source of jealous reactions and feelings, as I've illustrated above.) That's why in the program I give I talk a lot about making sure existing relationships are healthy and that all partners have reason to feel generally secure in their heart and in their partner(s)' love, no matter who else their partner may also love. I urge people to work on trust if there are trust issues, as these are incompatible with resolving jealousy. I also urge people who aren't very self aware to become so, and to engage in self-help and/or see a therapist to deal with any serious self-esteem and/or abandonment issues they may have. These are also incompatible with resolving jealousy. There is no reason for self-blame if these exist. Bad things happen to us, sometimes from experiences with former partners, with our parents, etc., that can set us up to feel insecure. It stinks, but it doesn't mean we have to live with it for the rest of our lives. But it does mean that with all the factors I reference here, these emotional issues can and likely will make managing jealousy in poly relationships a greater challenge than it would be otherwise.

The handout from my jealousy program can be found on my website under Downloadable Documents. As I learn more about the anthropological underpinnings of jealousy, I plan to add that information to it.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Vagaries of Relationship Success and Longevity

There's a fun website called The Frisky I've been frequenting lately because there is often content there on polyamory. There's a new article there by a woman who was part of a MFF poly triad for a while. She talks about how that went and how it all changed over time and why.

The author, Anya James, wrote:

One of the best lines I’ve heard came from a member of our poly discussion group back home: “A relationship’s value does not depend on its length.” Each stage of a relationship is a part of your life, and doesn’t have to last forever to be successful.

I am not afraid of our relationship changing. It’s not that I value it any less; Ellie is the sunshine of my life. But we’ve learned to embrace change as a constant in our lives, bringing us endless possibilities for adventure and self-discovery.

I've been known to say myself that the only thing we can be sure that will not change is that things will continue to change. I've also said before that I don't consider either of my marriages to have been a failure. They were good for a while, but, well, things changed.

I find myself in a situation with a relationship where a change could be on the horizon. I hope not, but reading this article was rather timely in that it reminded me that it's wise not to become too dependent on a person or relationship. People change, shit happens, and sometimes relationships come to an end. It's sad, and I'm hoping that's not what's waitng for me. I certainly plan to do all I can to avoid it. Still, it helps to remember that such is life - and love.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

When Polyamory Looks Like Swinging but Isn't

The difference between swinging and polyamory is one of the first questions polyfolk are asked by people who are unfamiliar with polyamory. Recently a subscriber to a yahoogroup we are both on wrote me privately. He and his wife are still working on defining polyamory for themselves and their life. He wrote to me in an attempt to clear up confusion about why another subscriber's frequent reports of having sex with a potential partner the first time they meet qualifies as polyamory. To him and his wife it looks like their idea of swinging.

I can understand why he is confused. There are a fair number of poly people who begin their poly relationships with sexual interactions. These tend to be people who are very sex positive and have no problem with being sexual for fun with someone new. I've even heard some say that they like to know up front whether there is sexual compatibility before taking the relationship further.

OTOH, some of us (myself included) prefer to get to know potential partners a bit before we become sexual with them. I'm very sensitive to people's energy and have learned that I don't feel good about being sexually intimate with someone only to find out later that there is something about their character or personality that turns me off. At this point in my life I favor sexual experiences that are heart-centered. It's possible for that to happen on a first date, but for me usually not.

I imagine the sex-first fellow would say that he does get to know his potential partners, who he usually travels to see, by e-mail and phone before they are sexual. Regardless, I've come to recognize and accept that some prefer to handle the sexual aspects sooner and some later. Those who prefer sooner differ from swingers in that they are specifically interested in developing a long-term, romantic, bonded relationship with their new partners, where swinging is a couple-centric activity that rarely leaves room for an ongoing emotionally intimate relationship. Most (but not all) swingers are sexually non-monogamous and emotionally monogamous. They tend to focus on the sex as a source of recreation and pleasure, and for them that's where it all stops, except perhaps that they may develop friendships and even platonic familial relationships with their swing partners.

Lest I offend any swingers with this description, I'm on record as someone who is very supportive of swinging as a valid choice. Occasionally swingers will also embrace polyamory, and vice versa. It's all good.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The Buzz on Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's just-released movie has the poly community all abuzz. Vicky Cristina Barcelona stars Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johanssan, Rebecca Hall, and in a small roll, one of my favorite actresses, Patricia Clarkson.

This movie isn't really about a truly polyamorous relationship, but there are similarities. It's about two friends who spend the summer in Barcelona, where they are introduced to (and seduced by) a painter (Bardem), who has a passionate relationships with his ex wife (Cruz), one of those ongoing love-hate sorts of relationships. You know, can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. In the trailer below, Cruz is heard to say that it made her feel wonderful to hear her ex husband and his summer lover, Johanssan, making love. Sounds like compersion to me.

See Alan's Polyamory in the News post on a very recent article in the New York Daily News on threesomes inspired by the release of VCB, with links to the article.

VCB was a selected film for the Canne International Film Festival in May. It opened in the U.S. this past Friday, August 15. As a Woody Allen film, you know there's going to be sex, and there is, apparently including a caliente scene between Johanssan and Cruz ..... yum. Can't wait.

Snappy Comebacks and Commitment in Poly Relationships

I administer a yahoogroup called CPNPolyMono, it is a support group for poly people with monogamous partners. Someone there posted the following:

"I just heard that tired, whining bandsaw of 'Why Can't Men COMMIT?' for the 5,892,436th time...and it occurred to me to ask in return, 'I don't know, Why Can't Women SHARE?'"

Here are my thoughts on this issue. Certainly poly people find that commitment question irksome, but in my experience, such responses rarely improve the situation, especially if the tone in which they are delivered is less than sincere. What actually tends to happen is that both parties end up feeling angry, defensive and resentful, and the chasm between the two widens. It's safe to say that this is probably not likely to move anyone closer to understanding and acceptance.

When handling this problem, this is a perfect time to be as emotionally intelligent as possible in its handling. I recommend taking the high road as much as possible and refusing to be baited. Instead of responding like someone wrongly accused, i.e. defensively, it's better to answer the question about commitment calmly, clearly and as lovingly as possible. It helps to validate the partner's feelings and frustration by affirming that it's understandable that polyamory might appear to represent a lack of commitment. People who don't understand polyamory feel very threatened by it - mono partners particularly see it as a situation where they have nothing to gain but a lot to lose. Plus, we all come from lifelong social conditioning that tells us that commitment equals exclusivity. When viewed from that perspective, it's hard to blame people for thinking that way.

The poly person's job is to explain how it is that this is a false dichotomy and how it is possible to be committed to a partner without being exclusive. I recommend that being prepared to back this up with info easily find on the internet on polyamory and commitment that has been printed out for the poly person and their partner to read and discuss together. Just google the words polyamory commitment - there's lots of useful info to be found that way.

Of course, all this assumes that there is indeed a commitment to the partner concerned and that relationship. If that commitment is less than solid, the partner will know it, and all the explanation in the world won't help them feel any more secure in the relationship. If that's the case, there is a much bigger question to answer about whether it makes sense to continue traveling life's road together.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

John Edwards, Cheating and the Ethics of Polyamory

The news this week has been full of reports about John Edwards' recent admission on ABC that he had an extra-marital affair a couple of years ago with a staffer named Rielle Hunter, pictured above along with Edwards, during his presidential campaign. Certainly this news is especially distasteful with the knowledge that Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, had just fought her breast cancer into remission at the time the affair began and which has since recurred and is incurable. Though I regret that this scandal has arisen and that the Edwards family must deal with the fallout as a result, I was very glad to know that at least Elizabeth has known of the affair for some time and so has been spared that shock in light of her present prognosis.

I don't approve of Edwards behavior, but neither am I willing to point my finger at him in judgment. I was once guilty myself - more on that will follow here. The media could certainly stand to do some substantial shoring up of its own ethics, seeing as how it is willing to cause chaos and heartache in its reporting of matters that are, to my mind, private and no one else's business - even regarding the lives of elected officials.

Recently a discussion about cheating not directly related to the Edwards scandal took place on a yahoogroup to which I am subscribed. One commenter saw no ethical problem with having sex with someone who was cheating on a partner with whom there is an agreement to be monogamous. I've heard others say as much who seem to think that what their sex partner is or isn't doing with regard to honoring other relationship commitments is neither their business nor their concern.

Franklin Veaux, a well-known polyamory writer and presenter, also participated in this discussion and wrote:

"We are, as a species, very good at coming up with rationalizations and justifications to persuade ourselves why it's OK to do whatever we want to do, regardless of the consequences or the effects our actions have on others."

One of my favorite movie quotes is from the movie "The Big Chill." (Jeff Goldblum played Michael and Tom Berenger played Sam.)

"Michael: I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex.

Sam: Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex.

Michael: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?"

So true! I have to smile every time I read that one.

We all rationalize, but rationalization isn't always ethical, as Franklin points out. It would be fascinating to know what John Edwards' rationalizations were for having the affair with Hunter, but I doubt we'll ever know the truth of that.

Since I became more aware of the power and frequency of rationalization, I do my best to notice when I'm rationalizing. I ask myself how likely it is that my rational thoughts are based on truth or whether I'm just bullshitting myself to avoid discomfort/nasty feelings or to gain something I want but don't want to pay the price for.

Franklin also wrote, "The fact is, being ethical means sometimes you don't get to do what you want to do. Being ethical sometimes means you don't get to fuck someone you really, really, really, REALLY want to fuck. That's why justifications are so easy, and ethical people are so thin on the ground."

I couldn't agree more. One of the reasons I am a poly person is that after two marriages and a lot of years, I had experienced the painful emotional effects of cheating from just about every angle imaginable. I cheated in my first marriage, I had an affair with a married man while single and between marriages, my second husband cheated on me, members of my family had affairs, and I once loaned my place out to a girlfriend who was having an affair and needed a place for a workday tryst with her lover.

Cheating on my first husband helped put an already troubled marriage right into the tank. Being cheated on by my second husband was excruciatingly painful. I saw all the trouble and pain cheating caused in my relationships and in those of the people I loved and decided I wanted nothing further to do with it - and this all was well before my polyamory days. I realized that, knowing how much it hurt when I was cheated on, I just couldn't feel right about having an affair with someone who was supposedly in a monogamous relationship. I didn't want to be a party to their partner's pain if/when they got caught.

That was many, many years ago. I've stuck to that commitment and have turned down more than a few offers from some real hotties, both men and women - I did it with regret that I had to do so, to be sure, but I still did it and am at peace with it. Today as a polyamorist I have at least a reasonable expectation and commitment from my partner(s) that we will always be open and honest with each other so I don't have to feel that devastating sense of betrayal again or bring it into anyone else's life.

A lot of people engage in cheating and rationalize their behavior in lots of ways, one being that they manage to convince themselves that they won't get caught, and what their monogamous partner doesn't know won't hurt them. Obviously this isn't true in terms of risk of communicating a sexually transmitted infection. It's unethical to put another person's sexual health at risk without their consent, even when safer sex is practiced. (That's why they call it safer sex and not safe sex - the risk is greatly reduced but not 100% eliminated.) It's also naive to expect not to get caught. Lots of people have ended up in divorce court who never thought they'd get caught and who say "But I was being so careful!"

Certainly our society's fetish for monolithic, life long monogamy as the be-all and end-all of relationships creates fertile ground for cheating. This doesn't let the cheater off the ethical hook, but it does go a long way toward explaining why people in western society - and especially in the puritanical United States - cheat in such significant numbers. With those cultural underpinnings in mind, I prefer to take a "come to Jesus" approach instead of trash talking about those who are cheating. Instead I encourage people to consider being open and honest with their partners and that they encourage their partners to come clean with *their* partners, even though that might seem daunting.

Certainly coming clean is not without risk to relationship stability, but getting caught is a lot riskier. I know this from witnessing the personal experiences of others. I felt so guilty that in my first marriage I voluntarily disclosed the affair I had to my husband before it was discovered. Even then I was on shaky ethical ground, as my confession was as much about gaining absolution and forgiveness from my husband - something that turned out to be in very short supply - as it was about being honest. Some would say it was only fair that he eventually had an affair of his own. At least I can say that I kept my promise never to do it again.

Relationships where cheating is going on are already on shaky ground, and when an affair is discovered, it is the damage to trust, an essential relationship component, that is exceedingly difficult to mend. My friend, Alan, who writes the Polyamory in the News blog, calls resisting the urge to engage in intimacy with someone who is cheating "choosing the difficult right over the easy wrong." I gather that Franklin would agree with that assessment, and certainly so do I. Failing to make the right choice falls well short of the spirit of polyamory, also referred to as responsible non-monogamy due to its ethos that requires openness and honesty with all partners/stakeholders.