Would You Help Me Decorate My Board Of Happiness™?

So my wife has been doing The Artist’s Way, and as a part of it she’d decorated her office with all sorts of shinies – affirmational banners, art she’s done, all sorts of rah-rah, atta-girl stuff.

I don’t have a space like that in our house. I work in the living room, on our couch, and it didn’t feel right to pollute the collective living space with my weird-ass trinkets. But after some thought, I grabbed a corner of the kitchen counter, where I tick off all my to-do lists, and made it pretty:

The Corner Of Happiness™
The Corner Of Happiness™

But the problem is, I don’t have any trinkets! I used to have a collection of enamel pins, but I always forgot to bring them to conventions, and because my wife kept paring down our possessions I eventually culled a lot of them.

So: Would you like to contribute to my Board Of Happiness?

If you have any enamel pins/buttons/stickers whatever you either have hanging around or would care to send to me specifically to give me A Joy ™ when I saw it on my board (which I intend to redecorate weekly), then hit me up at theferrett@theferrett.com and I’ll send you my address.

A caveat: the board is 12×16″, and I don’t want anything that can’t fit in a manila envelope because this should be a trivial matter. (So no stuffies, medallions, etc etc. Personal letters? If you do that, sure.)

But basically, I’m looking for stuff from people who wish to bring me some form of joy as I sit in my Corner of Happiness ™ and look at the shinies that kind folk have sent to me from afar. If that sounds good to you, hit me up and I’ll get back to you later this evening.

In any case, thanks for being awesome!

Why I Hate “True Poly”

“What those people are doing,” sniffs the commentor, “Is not a true polyamory. You shouldn’t dignify their behavior with the name of our hallowed institution! Why, they’re swingers at best! Or cheaters!”

Don’t get me wrong; I share in their sniffination. Part of the reason my wife and I came out as polyamorous was because there were so, so many dysfunctional relationships waving the poly banner proudly – selfish one-penis polycules, New Relationship Energy junkies, hostage situations where a monogamous partner is forced into polyamory because they can’t bear the thought of their partner leaving.

We saw folks rightfully going, “God, if that’s polyamory I don’t want to have anything to do with it,” and decided to go public in part as counter-programming.

(And our specific dysfunctions probably inspire other people to come out in order to disavow us! It’s the CIRCLE of life….)

But if I’m so down on many common forms of dysfunctional polyamory, why am I not in favor of claiming a “true” polyamory?

Two reasons:
1) The definition never actually works in the wild, and:
2) When it does work, it serves to exclude and alienate valid lifestyles

Let’s break that down. Quick. Who claims to be truly polyamorous?

Answer: Pretty much everyone who practices poly.

If people hewed to consistently labelling themselves, I might be in favor of “true poly” as a concept. But nobody sidles up to you at a party to say, “My wife and I are poly – well, not really poly, we kind of use new partners as playtoys until we decide they’re too troublesome and then we cast them aside, we’re actually only sweet so long as you’re useful to us, wanna fuck?”

Fact is, the only pragmatic definition of true poly is for people to claim they’re it. Everybody’s loving. Everybody’s caring. Everybody’s a beautiful family, until they’re not.

(If it helps, say that in the voice of Dr. Gregory House, MD.)

And they’re not even necessarily lying! This is what “true poly” is to them. Sure, there are conscious abusers – but most genuinely believe what they’re selling.

What’s lacking is not honesty, but insight.

(I do not exclude myself.)

So since hardly anyone will ever self-define themselves (and their relationships) as “fake poly,” “true poly” is not useful as a label. It’s like everything claiming to be gluten-free – if there’s no FDA standards mandating what that means, then anyone can slap a label on some harmful material in an attempt to sell you something toxic.

(Also, TIL that [the FDA did adopt gluten-free labelling requirements in 2013][https://www.fda.gov/food/food-labeling-nutrition/gluten-free-labeling-foods]. Ah, how quickly you fall behind on news when you stop dating your one partner who had terrible gluten issues!)

So basically, “true poly” doesn’t work when you’re trying to find an actual relationship to love in. So what’s it actually good for?

Well, it’s good for defining who’s doing polyamory right, right? That’s great. That’s….

Usually used to mean “What we think is awesome” and not actually “Whether the people inside the polyamory are in a stable form of happiness.”

I’ve been told, personally, on many occasions that what I have isn’t “true poly” because my partners (in non-pandemic times) only got to see me once every few months. I’ve been told I’m not “true poly” because I don’t talk on the phone with them. I’ve been told I’m not “true poly” because I found other partners when I was already dating enough people, how dare you?

I’ve watched friends get told they’re not “true poly” because they’re in a 24/7 power exchange relationship, or because they didn’t want their partner to live with them, or because they had clear boundaries the other person didn’t agree with.

The problem with people self-identifying as “true poly” is that nearly everyone thinks they’re Doing Poly Right; the problem with people externally applying labels for “True Poly” is that their definitions of a functional poly relationship are narrow, narrow, narrow.

Look. I have a whole (erratic) series on what I call “Perilous Poly Patterns,” wherein I discuss common issues that lead to dissatisfied partners. But the only reason I call them “Perilous” is because people routinely wind up unhappy in those relationships. If you’re in a one-penis polyamory where that dude’s dick is legit the only one you desire? Great! That’s true poly. If you’re a hierarchical couple and the people you date are satisfied, legitimately satisfied, with what they’re getting? Hey, welcome to the club.

And again, the people labelling other folk as “true poly”? Almost to a person, they feel qualified sorting folks’ relationships into the True Poly Bucket (TM) because they live the True Poly. You’ll rarely hear “Well, my partners are fucked nine ways to Sunday, but those people are True Poly.”

Look. I’ll go defining something as “Good Polyamory” or perhaps, more properly, “Satisfying Polyamory” – but I don’t define that by some external standard, but by a mixture of whether they’re currently satisfied and my subjective judgment as the odds as whether they’ll be satisfied in the future. (Which is why I’m uncomfortable with declaring my maaaybe-educated guess as a True Poly.)

But the whole point of polyamory is that it’s flexible enough to suit a variety of human beings, most of which have vastly different needs and wants than you do, and spending time determining which relationships are the Gold Standard of Polyamory seems awfully like trying to elevate yourself.

There’s best practices, sure. There’s common and helpful methodologies. But “True”?

Doesn’t work in the ways people want ’em to, and as such, the true is false.

Why It’s Hard To Expect Clear Communication In Beginning Polyamory (Or Beginning Anything, Really)

“Relationships are all about communication,” the saying goes – as if you just talk through things enough, you’ll be fine.

But there is a hidden “gotcha” in that: clear communication requires clear concepts. Communicating something you don’t actually understand all that well leads to garbled discussions – like when you’re trying to get a bartender to make your favorite drink when you don’t remember the name or what’s exactly in it, and you’re flailing “You know! With the bourbon! And that flavor!”

(For the record, the world’s perfect drink is the currently-on-pandemic-hiatus Velvet Tango Room’s Bourbon Daisy, a drink with a fifteen-second aftertaste that mutates on the tongue, and yet I digress.)

Now, that’s not to say the bartender might not eventually stumble onto the fact that you want a bourbon daisy – the genius part of communication is that it’s two-way, and sometimes a knowledgeable partner can intuit the part that you’re not saying.

But when you’re starting out? When you have literally the least knowledge that you’ll ever have about what you like and expect in open relationships?

Communication gets rough.

And though the idea of communicating what you need sounds really good, often starter polyamory is mucked up with a lot of things you didn’t actually know you needed until you get there – you don’t know how to be reassured in your insecurity, you don’t know what your partner is supposed to do when they go out on a date with someone else, you may not even know why you’re upset.

Now, constantly communicating can ameliorate some of that damage. If you discover that your partner needs to give you a night-night call before they go to bed at someone else’s house, informing them of that revelation as soon as is conveniently possible is A Good Thing.

But what I find beginning poly folks often do is to expect that communication will clear a path for them – whereas a new relationship is like walking across a strange room in complete darkness, barking your shins on a new piece of furniture every few steps.

A clear, constant communication won’t prevent you banging from your shin. It’ll let your partner know hey there’s a chair here, which is better than nothing, but you’ve still got a bloodied toe and an ouchie to Band-Aid.

And starter poly folk often feel weirdly betrayed by that hurt – We’re open! We discuss things all the time! This shouldn’t happen! – and alas, I’m here to tell you that it’s part of the process.

There will be communication, but it likely won’t be clear. You’ve got some work to put in, exploring the boundaries of your own comfort, discovering what helps you feel safe, learning the surprising intimacies you didn’t even know you had until you see your partner doing those with someone else and feeling that sting of Wait, wasn’t expecting that.

It’s fine. Constant communication should be expected.

Clear communication takes self-knowledge, which takes practice and time, and I promise you that you can mostly get there. But you have to realize that often, communication is what wraps the bandage around the bleeding wound and stops the infection, not what prevents the wound in the first place.

Respect For The Ones Who Come After You: A Cool Polyamory Tip

Hardly anyone who dates me has problems with my wife. I’d like to say that’s because my wife is eminently sweet and reasonable, which she is, but let’s be honest: my wife’s been with me for twenty-plus years now, and our bond is strong. If you had problems with my wife, you probably wouldn’t want to date me.

I also have a girlfriend I’ve been dating for eleven years. She’s less intrusive on anyone I date, partially because she’s a severe introvert and as such is less likely to meet anyone else I’m smooching. So it’s unsurprising that practically nobody’s ever complained about her presence in my life.

…but I have noticed a pattern with the people I’ve been dating for a year or more.

There’s rarely jealousy for the people I’m with when they start dating me. Those relationships are part of the Ferrett Starter Package – you get a Ferrett, you get a Gini, you get Ferrett’s Long-Term Partner and all the comets he’s seeing sporadically. That framework of relationships gets built into how someone interacts with me.

But after we’ve been going out for a while, I’ll notice that when I start dating someone new, it’s A Problem. This person is Unknown. They weren’t standing in line when the person I’m currently dating got here. And this newness often causes upheaval in quiet ways.

It’s not that they’re opposed to me dating other people. But perhaps me dating this person is the wrong decision. Or perhaps they weren’t expecting this relationship to blossom this quickly. Or perhaps they felt they deserve more of my time than this new person, or they’re not entirely sure this new person is good for me, or….

I’m not pointing fingers here; I’ve done it too, where the person I’ve dated picked up a new paramour and suddenly I was all like WOT’S THIS ERE THEN, OO’S NEWWWWW PERSON?

Yet there is a tendency to react to a partner who’s come along after you as though their addition some sort of special upheaval that requires managing, simply because the dynamic’s changed. And yeah, you definitely have to think about the dynamics when you’re dating, but…

What that resistance often is is a subtle statement of “I know my place in this hierarchy, and I don’t want to be budged.” Even if you don’t have a hierarchy.

Which I mostly don’t; my wife comes first because a) I live with her and am financially entangled, but more importantly b) she’s been my best friend for twenty-five years and her advice has led me to being saner and happier than I ever was without her, so her words bear a considerable weight. But in general, I don’t weigh my relationships by the amount of time invested, I weigh them by how fulfilling they are at any given moment.

And my relationship dynamics are continually changing! I’m talking to new people, having old relationships fade or crumble, going to conventions (eventually) and sparking new crushes. All my relationships – and I have a lot of them, on various levels of intensity – are in flux, eternally. It’s not like things were in a fixed position ever.

So what I’m saying is this: often, what people do when a “new” person comes along is to register objections to the new person – sometimes as blunt as “I don’t like them” or as subtle as a vague dislike because something seems off about them. And certainly I’m not telling you to disable your dysfunction radar, but…

Ponder whether it’s the person you’re concerned about, or whether it’s your perception of your place in line that you care about. Because what’s actually happening is often a flurry of “Wasn’t I good enough for them? Why are they seeking out new partners when I should have fulfilled all their dreams? Do I really know my partner well enough to trust them finding new dates?”

Yet what you must remember in these poly-only situations is that at one point they were happy with the “old” partners and yet still saw something in you. It’s a subtle insult to everyone else they’re dating to imply that their falling in love with someone else is a failure in the relationship structure!

(Although, this being poly, let’s be honest: There definitely are people who do swing from partner to partner, feasting on NRE and starving the others. But then again, if you’ve been okay with starving your partner’s old partners as your lover has been spending all their time with you, then perhaps karma may have come a-knockin’?)

Truth is, if someone’s dated steadily, the fact that you’re no longer the newest addition doesn’t mean you’re somehow lesser. Each relationship within poly is unique, and you have to trust that – and I know from personal experience it’s scary when someone else comes along, drawing your partner’s eye with strengths you don’t possess! But you have to be comfortable that you have your own individual charms that New Person, in turn, does not have.

Good poly isn’t about standing in line. It’s about valuing the relationships you have properly. And it’s about being realistic in understanding where your concerns are coming from – you can’t fix your worries about “What do I mean to them?” by ragging, however subtly, on their other partners.

If they’re dating someone new, contemplate the true nature of your objection. Are they really a danger? Or do you just need some reassurance that you’re still fully loved as you can be within the framework of dating multiple people?

Because there is a difference. And wise poly people know it.