Stories from the Polycule and more
Meg John Barker, a senior lecturer in psychology at Open University in London, wrote a very substantial and thoughtful review of the two new poly books about to appear from Thorntree Press: The Game Changer by Franklin Veaux, publication date September 23 [Update: Some of Franklin's former partners have challenged his accounts as false], and Stories from the Polycule edited by Elisabeth Sheff, pub date October 15.
Meg John is a longtime queer and poly researcher and community organizer. They've agreed to let me reprint virtually all of the 3,000-word review here as a guest post. Thanks!
Polyamory book reviews: Useful ideas for all relationships
By Meg John Barker
More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert (the same title as Franklin’s successful blog). The latter is The Polyamorists Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff, who writes the Psychology Today column of the same name.
I found their latest outputs just as interesting. The Game Changer is an in-depth exploration of one person’s experience of shifting from a fairly hierarchical to more egalitarian polyamory. Stories from the Polycule is an accessible collection of all kinds of experiences of open non-monogamy. They provide a rich description of one person’s lived experience of polyamory, and a sense of the diversity of experiences that are possible within open non-monogamy.
This is important because many popular accounts of polyamory focus on rather similar narratives. As with many marginalised groups, poly people generally tell a public story that challenges common prejudices against them. So, for example, we often hear poly stories that contradict the stereotypes that polyamory is all about sex (by focusing on love), that it’s doomed to failure (by focusing on long term relationships), and that it’s weird (by focusing on the kinds of poly that are closest to monogamy).
This is understandable in a world where poly people are still stigmatised and afforded few legal rights. However, it means that the accounts we hear can be rather shallow, sterile, and samey. It was very refreshing – therefore – to read Franklin’s story of both the pains and pleasures of polyamory and alternatives to more conventional forms of poly; and in Elisabeth’s collection to read about the ups and downs of poly, the sexual side of relationships, and the multiplicity of possible constellations. These books offer exciting alternatives to the ‘one true way’ versions of polyamory that can be found in some poly communities, and the search for a universal explanation for why people are poly that are often found in academic work on the subject.
I’ll say a bit more about each book in turn, in particular on why I think they offer something to our understanding of all relationships, not just polyamorous ones.
The Game Changer
Franklin Veaux’s memoir gives us a more detailed account of something that he alluded to in More Than Two: His own journey towards the version of relationships that he’s living now, and the ways in which he – and others – got hurt along the way. One of the strengths of More Than Two is that it doesn’t present polyamory – or relationships in general – as easy: the book is clear about the many common mistakes that people make when opening up their relationships.
In The Game Changer Franklin describes how he got together with a partner early on who was more-or-less okay with his non-monogamy as long as he agreed to a number of contractual rules. These included her being his primary partner, her being able to veto at any time any of his partners she wasn’t happy with, and other partners not living with them or sleeping the night with him. Franklin agrees to this, thinking he is incredibly fortunate to find somebody who is open to him being non-monogamous at all. They both end up having other relationships, but these are obviously restricted in how close they can become.
Franklin and his partner stay together for years, but Franklin increasingly realises how much the relationship is rooted in fear: his partner’s insecurities about Franklin leaving her, and his own fear of never finding anybody else who will agree to his non-monogamy. He also realises how much people are being hurt by the arrangement: particularly the secondary partners who are vetoed without any explanation, or denied any possibility of developing their relationships.
I was fascinated at how similar this story was to the accounts of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre’s non-monogamous relationships, which I researched for a book chapter a year or so back. Apparently, towards the end of her life, Simone de Beauvoir said, of her relationship with Sartre:
If the two allies allow themselves only passing sexual liaisons then there is no difficulty, but it also means that the freedom they allow themselves is not worthy of the name. Sartre and I have been more ambitious; it has been our wish to experience ‘contingent loves’: but there is one question we have deliberately avoided: How would the third person feel about the arrangement? (de Beauvoir, cited in Rowley, 2006, p. 299-300)
It sounds like she is saying here that only a polyamorous style of non-monogamy (where people love other partners rather than just having sex with them) can be a fully free style of relationships, but that even then there is a big question over the how free the further partners beyond the ‘primary partnership’ can actually be (Simone and Jean-Paul used the distinction ‘essential/contingent’ rather than ‘primary/secondary’ to describe a similar thing).
In The Game Changer Franklin swiftly finds that limiting himself to ‘sex but not love’ won’t work – and manages to get his partner to agree to him being able to love other people. But for much of their relationship he still neglects to consider de Beauvoir’s question of how the third person feels about the arrangement. It’s only through talking with many of these secondaries that he finally begins to overtly challenge this: first by creating a ‘Secondary’s Bill of Rights’ on his blog – which infuriates many people in his local poly community – and eventually by divorcing his first partner and moving to a more egalitarian style of polyamory where partners don’t have control or veto over each others’ relationships.
As I was reading The Game Changer, this quote from Terry Pratchett’s Granny Weatherwax kept coming to my mind:
Sin … is when you treat people as things, including yourself, that’s what sin is.
This is the lesson that Franklin is learning throughout the events described in his memoir. And, of course, it is one that many of us have learnt – and continue to learn – through our adventures in relating – whether monogamous or non-monogamous, coupled or single, sexual or not.
Clearly it isn’t cool to treat secondaries as things: they end up getting badly hurt. But equally, Franklin discovers the problems inherent in him and his partner treating each other as things. She treats him as a thing by endeavouring to control him and make him be what she wants him to be, even though that isn’t what he is. And he does a similar thing back by constantly trying to get her to be somebody who is open to his form of non-monogamy. Finally – and perhaps most difficult to spot when we’re doing it – is treating ourselves as things. Again, both Franklin and his partner attempt to turn themselves into what their partner wants them to be, at the expense of their own freedom and authenticity. And we see how much this hurts both of them, and how it simply isn’t sustainable in the long term.
Of course, as many of the existentialists have pointed out, humans generally default to treating people as things (‘objectification’ if you want the technical term). We have a strong tendency both to try to make others into what we want them to be, and to try to make ourselves into what we think others want us to be. It is no criticism of Franklin and his partner – or of Simone and hers – that they fell into treating other people, and themselves, as things. And it is deeply impressive that they noticed they were doing it and made a life project of trying to find another way, and to live it as much as possible.
Reading it on this level, The Game Changer is not just a polyamory memoir, but a sustained meditation on the existential themes that affect us all. How do we navigate our relationships – of all kinds – in ways which balance our human desires for both freedom and safety? Can we find ways of relating in which we explicitly counter our tendency to treat others – and ourselves – as things? Can we develop a relationship ethics which moves away from a hierarchical model whereby we objectify people more the further away they are from us (friends more than lovers, secondaries more than primaries, strangers more than friends, etc.)? How can we be with our own fear and jealousy, boredom and restlessness, when they threaten to destroy our relationships? How can we be with the knowledge that relationships will change over time, and the insecurity inherent in that? And how can we relate with each other ethically when the cultural norms around us encourage a fear-based, hierarchical, way of relating?
Franklin’s memoir provides one set of answers to these questions, and Elisabeth Sheff’s Stories from the Polycule makes it clear that there are many other possible answers.
Stories from the Polycule
This collection presents 49 accounts from different poly people about their relationships and experiences. Divided into sections, the book includes stories about how people began being poly, different poly family constellations, experiences of having children in poly families – including several accounts from children themselves – how people navigate difficult times and breakups, stories of long-term poly relationships, and ‘racy bits’ about the sexual side of poly.
High points in the book for me included Maxine Green’s account of her appearance with two of her metamours on breakfast television – which I remember well, and which was a nice UK moment in a collection of otherwise mostly North American accounts. It was a shame not to see some of Maxine’s own poly comics included as they are some of my favourites (and a big inspiration behind my own forays into comics). Also it was great to see the likes of Andrea Zanin, Julie Fennell, and Elisabeth Sheff herself breaking down the distance between research and researched by including powerful accounts of their own relationship experiences in the book. Finally, as with Elisabeth’s previous book, this collection presents an important challenge to the common assumption that polyamorous parenting is somehow more questionable than monogamous parenting. As with the research on same-sex parents in the past, it is clear that there is no evidence to support the idea that poly parenting is in any way inferior.
As I mentioned earlier, the main strength of this book is that it gives a good sense of the diversity of polyamory: both the range of ways of doing openly non-monogamous relationships that people have developed, and the numerous different reasons that people have for pursuing them. This is helped by the inclusion of a number of comics in addition to the written stories, many of which illustrate this diversity beautifully. It was great to see a couple of the popular Kimchi Cuddles poly comics, along with this incredibly helpful cartoon from Kirstin Rohwer, which I’ve shared before:
Kirstin’s comic highlights the one limitation that I found with Stories from the Polycule, which – I think – could easily by rectified in a future book (Further Stories from the Polycule?) The book seemed to me to be rather focused on stories from relationships in the second couple of rows of Kirstin’s cartoon: people in open relationships, polyfidelitous relationships, and hierarchical versions of poly (such as the kinds of primary/secondary arrangements that Franklin describes). I felt that there were fewer stories representing egalitarian forms of polyamory and very few on solo poly or relationship anarchy.
Open non-monogamous relationships can be roughly divided into two forms, nicely illustrated in Franklin’s shift from one to the other in The Game Changer.
The first kind are those which seem to take the cultural norm of monogamy as a starting point, but chisel bits off it in order to create something that better fits the people concerned. For example, swinging and open relationships chisel off the rule about sexual fidelity; polyfidelity chisels off the rule about a relationship being between two people; hierarchical polyamory chisels off the rule about ‘forsaking all others’. However, these versions generally do accept the common assumptions that romantic relationships are more important than other kinds of relationships, and that some kinds of rules of engagement are necessary to protect the people concerned.
The second kind of openly non-monogamous relationships are those that endeavour to start from a different place than conventional monogamy: often a different set of assumptions about human beings and relationships. For example, they might assume that people are fundamentally free and independent; that nobody can belong to anybody else; that relationships inevitably change over time; that no form of relationship is inherently more important than any other (e.g. friends vs. lovers, sexual vs. non-sexual); and that relationships should be grounded on trust, communication and ongoing negotiation. Relationship anarchy is a form of open non-monogamy that explicitly starts from these kinds of assumptions. But we can see that the form of egalitarian polyamory Franklin ended up with has a similar foundation, as do many forms of solo poly.
Research seems to support the genuine existence of this kind of split. In his studies on open non-monogamy, Mark Finn has found that people roughly divide into those who seek ‘freedom-of-contract’ and those who seek ‘freedom-from-contract’. The first group are the ones who look to rules and contracts to make their relationships feel free-enough and safe-enough. The second group are those who feel that independence, trust and ongoing negotiation will be more likely to create the safe-enough and free-enough relationships that they’re looking for.
Both models can become rigid and brittle if they are held too tightly. A few years back I ran a workshop at a poly conference where we talked about the poly ‘crab bucket’. The crab bucket is another Terry Pratchett idea that I draw on in my writing about relationships. Pratchett pointed out that you don’t need a lid on a bucket of crabs. Crabs generally do not want to leave the security of the group, and if any crab does try to escape over the rim of the bucket, the other crabs will drag it back down.
I extend the metaphor to imagine what happens if a crab does escape the bucket. Being alone on the beach is not a comfortable or safe place to be, so most crabs will find another bucket to climb into. This is a good metaphor for the move from of monogamy to poly, or from one version of poly to another. We often tend to grab hold of a new set of norms rather tightly and insist that everyone else in our community follows them too.
At my workshop it quickly became apparent that people were familiar with two different kinds of poly crab buckets. The norms in one bucket were about dividing people into different kinds of relationships (e.g. primary and secondary), having rules and contracts (e.g. specific date-nights for each relationship, keeping certain kinds of activities sacred for certain relationships, etc.), and seeking ‘unicorns’ to create the perfect poly constellation (e.g. the ‘hot bi babe’ who would have to fall in love with both members of a heterosexual couple).
In the other bucket, the norms were more about controlling certain forms of emotional expression (e.g. it not being acceptable to express jealousy or insecurity), insisting that people adhere to the same model of non-monogamy even if it doesn’t feel comfortable to them (a kind of poly-er than thou attitude), and sometimes imposing a rhetoric of equality on what actually feels rather hierarchical (e.g. people stating that all their partners are equal whilst spending a lot more time with one than another, or saying that they have just ‘changed their relationship’ in what feels a lot like a break-up).
Many of these issues with the second crab bucket stem from failing to recognise how difficult it is to completely step outside of culture. Whilst – as we’ve seen – there are many good reasons to try to find new ways of relating, it probably isn’t possible to completely escape the models that surround us in wider society. Also, we risk becoming just as restrictive and controlling as rules-based models can be if we don’t recognise our tendency to create new crab buckets, and if we fail to examine our own models with the same critical eyes with which we examine others’.
Obviously this division into two forms of open non-monogamy is an over-simplification, and – as with all binaries – it can usefully be challenged. Arguably it should be more of a continuum from the first to the second form of non-monogamy than two separate boxes. And there may be relationships which don’t even fit on that spectrum at all. As I’ve written about elsewhere, there are also big issues with the monogamy / non-monogamy binary. There are monogamous models that look more like the freedom-from-contract way of relating, just as there are non-monogamous models that are very rules-based. It would be more accurate to view relationships on a number of different dimensions rather than attempting to come up with such hard-and-fast divisions.
Going back to Stories from the Polycule, I would love to see a further book that included as many accounts from egalitarian and solo poly people, relationship anarchists, and others exploring these kinds of models, as accounts from the more open-relationship / hierarchical-poly end of the spectrum. However, for now, Stories from the Polycule remains a very helpful addition to the poly literature indeed.
Here's the original article on Barker's site Rewriting the Rules (August 17, 2015).
P.S.: Kimchi Cuddles also just reviewed The Game Changer, as follows:
UPDATE April 2020: Recently some of Franklin Veaux's partners whose stories are told in The Game Changer have disputed those accounts and come forward with their own stories of relational harm in their connections with him.
Labels: books, Franklin Veaux