First, Do No Harm?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 8.442% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

You know what I hardly see anyone ever talking about in polyamory?  What responsibilities we have, if any, to our lovers’ other partners.
’cause I know if I wrote an essay on “Here’s how poly people abuse their lovers,” I’d get a zillion fist-pumps and a hundred inbound links and a hundred comments going, “SO TRUE!  Polyamory is all about being good to the one you love.”
But if I wrote an essay about “Here’s how poly people abuse their lovers’ partners,” I suspect I’d get a faceful of awkward silence, followed by a round of defensive, “Well, it’s not my problem.  I don’t need to worry what happens over there.”
Yet that shit happens.  You and I both know there are so-called “poly people” who start dating with the idea of chipping away at all the other lovers, edging them out like this was some sort of battle in the arena.  You and I both know that there are folks who don’t ask, “Hey, is this cool with your other partners?” when they’re both caught up in NRE and spiralling out of control.  You and I both know that for every case of polydickery, there’s another eager poly person going, “Well, every time I kiss him it’s like tin foil on her teeth, but I don’t care if she’s hurting as long as I’m satiated!”
You’ve got a lot of folks who are basically saying, “Well, if those other people get hurt, that’s awesome, as long as I get what I want.”
And I dunno.  I treat poly like I’m going camping in the woods; leave nothing but footprints, take nothing but pictures.  (Lots and lots of pictures.)  When I’m operating in someone else’s ecosystem, I try to be respectful of not just them, but the people they supposedly love.  And if I sense they’re acting in a way that might potentially hurt those people, I take a full stop and go, “Wait, is this  okay?”
Which leads to some really awkward and painful fucking conversations.  It’s killed some chances at sex, because some folks get really upset when you double-check their motivations.  But my whole goal is to leave this relationship as I left it; when I walk away, I’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that even if things are dysfunctional, at least I didn’t function it more.
…which is not to say that I’m a slave to the poly web.  If I think my lover’s dating someone who’s doing something bad or irrational, I’ll discuss that with them, encourage them to bring those awful habits up for discussion.  In doing so, I make some more room for myself.  But I always try to treat the guy (or girl) on the other side of me with respect, so at least if I’m pushing an agreement they know why.
Yet that’s also an aspect of privilege.  I’ve got my primary, and I’m always going home to snuggle up in a warm bed with someone I love.  If I was in the all-secondary, all-the-time club, would I be so magnanimous?  There’s a good chance I wouldn’t.  It’d be harder to walk away when the alternative is masturbation in an empty apartment.
I think the reason why the polyamorous really hate having these discussions is because getting to the partners on the other side is fuckin’ hard, yo.  You’re not dating them.  In many cases, you may not like them enough to want to sit down for long couch sessions to determine what they want.  In some cases you may see them as actively toxic.  You’re seeking out the company of people you don’t want to have conversations you hate to have that may lead to a breakup.
As noted, my insistence on “…and is this okay with the collective?” has torpedoed a couple of relationships.  It’s caused some intense fights I would have preferred to avoid, leading to premature shakeouts.  It’d be a lot easier just to shrug my shoulders and go, “Fuck it, that’s their issue” – and maybe that’s the correct thing to do.  You can’t save everyone from their own desires, and if they’ve got a problem, then they should have the guts to walk away.
And you get more sex and love.  For you.
Still, personally?  I can’t counsel a polyamory where you’re okay with protecting your lovers, and okay with watching the people your lover supposedly cares about get brutalized.  To me, that has the unpleasant stink of psychopathy about it, in that those “in the circle” are deserving of protection and those “outside” can eat a dick.
Plus, there’s also the aspect that I’m going to be an occasional inconvenience; that’s just how it is.  If my lover is callously disregarding her other partners’ feelings when I’m the new hotness in town, how can I trust that she won’t do the same to me when the new star rises in the east?
I dunno.  If my partner is dating people I can’t fucking stand on any level, perhaps that’s a valid approach; shes got me.  Dating all people like me might be too redundant, and so she finds people with wildly varying personalities to fulfill all the various needs in her life.  But if they’re so opposed that I can’t sit down with them for an evening and have pleasant conversation, that’s a dealbreaker for me.  I don’t want to have to tiptoe that much.
Thing is, if people weigh in, I’m sure they’ll weigh in as though there are clear and easy moral answers to this.  There aren’t.  Which maybe is why you don’t see a lot of ramblings like this hitting Kinky and Popular on FetLife; it’s really easy to thunder, “DON’T FUCK OVER PEOPLE YOU LOVE!”  Because if you did that, you were 100% wrong.
Yet it’s a lot less morally satisfying to say, “Don’t fuck over people you don’t really care about.”  Because you probably have, on some level.  And knowing how to avoid that is tough, yo.  Tough.

3 Comments

  1. Hasufin
    Dec 13, 2012

    I think you make a pretty good argument for being involved and giving a damn. Which isn’t an easy thing, and no matter what you’re likely to fail. But if you’re consciously saying “No, I don’t care how this other person is affected by my actions” then you need to check yourself. Maybe you’re making the right decision, maybe you’re not; if you’ve decided to not care, though, there’s a problem.
    Having those conversations is awkward, and I’ll admit I’ve avoided them when I shouldn’t have, myself. I think, overall, lack of communication cannot be cured with less communication. We need to be adults, and talk things over.
    And, yes – if your lover is willing to fuck over someone else, what does that really say about them? Are they really the person you think they are, or is it just the haze of NRE? This isn’t just about being a decent human being, but about protecting yourself.
    No easy answers, you’re right. Being a responsible adult is HARD.

  2. Rebecca
    Dec 26, 2012

    Linked here via a friend on Twitter: https://twitter.com/maymaym/status/283061238022422528 🙂
    I think you make some good points here re: the importance of engaging respectfully with all the people in your intimate network, even when that’s hard work or puts your partnered relationships at risk.
    I have to say, though, it feels like your argument is based on a bit of a strawman. 😉
    I’ve been poly for a while, and maybe I’ve just been improbably fortunate, but I’ve never met a self-described polyamorous person who’s as consciously callous toward their metamours as the person you’re describing in the 4th paragraph (“start dating with the idea of chipping away at all the other lovers…” etc.) That’s not to say people don’t ACT that way — but they very rarely *perceive* themselves as acting that way.
    Sometimes, the people who act that way the most are the ones who perceive themselves as acting that way the least. We’ve got so many great, smart, rationalizations for why we’re the Good Poly People who are Doing It Right, we don’t see the negative impacts of our By The Book actions on our metamours or their relationships with our partners — assuming, instead, that “it’s them, not me.”
    In fact, I’m pretty sure that, statistically speaking, the person with the most success “edging out” other lovers tends to be a primary with veto power. 😉
    I think you’re heading in the right direction when you say, “Yet that’s also an aspect of privilege. I’ve got my primary, and I’m always going home to snuggle up in a warm bed with someone I love.” But to characterize the other position as, “It’d be harder to walk away when the alternative is masturbation in an empty apartment,” feels pretty uncharitable to me.
    You’re essentially concluding that having couple privilege affords you the “privilege” of being a more ethical, communicative, responsible adult than secondaries or solo poly folk are able to be — thereby positioning secondaries/solo polys as the very strawman that you’re knocking down at the beginning of your post.
    Especially by suggesting (and I realize that this was mostly the commenter, below you, not you — but I think it’s a pretty common sentiment) that this kind of callous behavior tends to be caused by NRE, we implicitly reinforce putting secondaries and new partners in the role of “homewreckers.” But, again (and I only say this because I’ve been guilty of it myself), callousness towards a metamour can be caused just as much by entitlement and complacency within a primary/pre-existing relationship as it can by blinding NRE within a new relationship.
    That being said:
    “it’s a lot less morally satisfying to say, “Don’t fuck over people you don’t really care about.” Because you probably have, on some level. And knowing how to avoid that is tough, yo. Tough.”
    Yes. This. Totally. Everything about this. 🙂
    Sorry for the kind of intense critique. I’d normally try to be a little more diplomatic, but I’m kind of in a hurry tonight, so I’m writing off the cuff. Thanks for writing this post, though! I enjoyed reading it. I totally think you’re headed in a good direction with it. And it sounds like your metamours are lucky to have you. 🙂

    • TheFerrett
      Dec 28, 2012

      Thanks for your intense criticism! I welcome it. Now I shall intensely critique yours. (After a Christmas-induced delay, of course.)
      Lesson One: Just because you have never met President Obama does not mean that he is made out of straw. Likewise, I’m grateful that you’ve never met these people, but I’ve talked to three friends in the past week who’ve suffered because of new people moving in with the intent to cut the others out. I assure you, they do exist, and they are made of meat.
      Lesson Two: Just because they don’t perceive themselves as that doesn’t mean they aren’t that. There are a good many serial date rapists who don’t perceive themselves as such, but yet somehow they keep putting women in grievous situations. That doesn’t miraculously make them NOT date rapists, even if they don’t understand the underlying mechanisms that drive them to do what they do. What matters is their actions, particularly over extended periods of time, and what they repeatedly accomplish in the way of harm. And to go, “Well, if they don’t MEAN it, they don’t really DO it!” is a rather horrid argument.
      Now:
      “You’re essentially concluding that having couple privilege affords you the “privilege” of being a more ethical, communicative, responsible adult than secondaries or solo poly folk are able to be — thereby positioning secondaries/solo polys as the very strawman that you’re knocking down at the beginning of your post. ”
      No. No, I’m not. I’m saying it’s *easier* for me to be so, which is self-evident. It’s like a guy with two apartments saying, “Well, it’s easier for me if I lose one, I’ll just sleep at the other place.” It’s a lot easier for that dude to say, “Well, if paying my Neonazi landlord is funding hate groups, I’ll just leave!” because he doesn’t have to worry about where he is that night.
      Likewise, if you have a primary, it’s a lot easier to be easy on your other lover’s partners, because if they don’t want you to do X, or Y, you have other alternatives. But if you go home alone, well, it’s a starker choice.
      To frame that as me saying that “primaries are good, secondaries are bad” is to misread the very nature of privilege itself. Privilege doesn’t mean, “WE ARE SUPERIOR,” unless you’re a dolt. What it means is that certain things become a lot easier for privileged people because of societal issues, and you can get away with choices that would punish others unduly. I’m going to suggest you don’t understand privilege all that well, and maybe do some reading on that.
      “callousness towards a metamour can be caused just as much by entitlement and complacency within a primary/pre-existing relationship as it can by blinding NRE within a new relationship.”
      And that is true, but part of what I’m discussing is the difficulty of CHECKING that complacency. If you think someone’s being potentially callous or complacent to their partner, how do you check them on that? Because if you do, many people will say, “HOW DARE YOU QUESTION ME?” and leave. And then, if you’re a solo poly, you’re alone. And what does that get you? An empty bed and the nebulous satisfaction of knowing that maybe you stopped someone from being out of line, or maybe just misread the situation.
      There’s very little reward for acting quote-unquote ethically in those situations. And is it actually ethical? Lord knows!

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