Why “Never Make Someone Your Priority When You’re Only Their Option” Is Misleading Poly Advice

There’s a quote that’s floated about the Internets for years, and it goes something like this:

“Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option.”

It’s a good starter rule for monogamy, but I feel the advice often goes awry for the people who most need it in polyamory – because they’re often filtering their polyamory through the perspective of monogamy.

Because as I always joke about in my classes, monogamy has a secret win condition called “death.” There’s a hidden monogamous escalator – you date, you kiss, you go steady, you move in together, you get engaged, you get married, maybe you get yourself some kids along the way, and each stage is perceived as a higher level of commitment by society at large.

Get married until death do you part, and congratulations! You have won the game of monogamy!

….except you kinda haven’t. I mean, we all know that bitter fundamentalist couple who made a drastic mistake when they were nineteen but their religion won’t allow them to divorce, so they’ve endured in misery for fifty years. Or you’ve got that couple who can’t afford the split in property (or who don’t want to upset their kids), so they shamble along in a caricature of surface-level affection.

Point is, even though society’s keyed most people to see “living together forever” as the victory condition for monogamous relationships, it’s not really all that.

But if you’re not careful when you enter into polyamory, you can accidentally slurp that philosophy up like poison in the groundwater.

I did that a lot in the early days of going poly: I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, I was looking for a secondary wife. I thought I’d find yet another soulmate to rival the woman I’d spent ten years building a relationship, and we’d come to rely on each other for all the emotional support that my wife and I gave each other, and we’d smooth down all of each other’s rough edges to learn to work properly with each other, and eventually we’d, I dunno, move in and get a triple-marriage and die happily in a nursing home cuddle puddle.

Most of these relations snapped like a shattered tibia under the weight of “must be wife material.” The truth was, what we shared was a good sense of humor and some sexual chemistry, and I would have been a lot better off letting those relationships grow organically, rather than treating our first serious disagreement be “Now, we’re going to be lifelong partners, so we have to correct even the slightest flaws because we will be two weasels locked in a paint bucket forever, so let’s map out a better and lasting communication strategy.”

Know what would have kept us together? A box of chocolates and a good makeup fuck.

So saying “Never allow someone to be your priority while allowing yourself to be their option” is good advice for monogamous people who largely have to learn to be priorities, and it’s excellent advice for single-poly people dating poly couples who want to dodge the toxic idea of “couples privilege” (where two people can dump you at any time for any reason any time you have a need that conflicts with theirs)…

…but if you’re still approaching polyamory through a history of viewing relationships through that monogamish lens?

Well, wiser minds than me have fallen prey to the idea that every relationship must be a five-alarm fire priority, and as such they kind of forget the idea that relationships can have optional parts.

Like, I’ve got friends who I woodwork with, and they’re completely reliable if I need to fix a bookcase I put together wrong, yet we don’t sit in a circle troubleshooting each other’s relationship troubles. I’ve got friends who will drop everything to talk me through a depression at three in the morning, but I would not trust them within fifteen yards of my finances. I’ve got friends who I go months without seeing, eventually catch a completely enjoyable beer and a movie with, and then not plan anything for months after.

Not everything in poly relationships needs to be a priority either.

This is most commonly expressed in terms of a classic Dom/Sub relationship, where someone goes to a tertiary partner for hot beatings and proper tears, but is reliant on a spouse for their finances and fundamental emotional checkins. But there’s all sorts of other shapes a poly relationships can take – I have comets who I care for deeply, chat with twice a week, and yet will never actively book a flight to go see them because that’s not how that works for us. I have partners who have neuroses that are hair-bristlingly at odds with my insecurities, and so when they freak out they have to go to their other partners or else we would implode.

You know how some couples are great until they move in with each other and it turns out they utterly can’t live in the same space? In poly, you don’t have to.

The beauty of polyamory is that your relationships can be custom-fit to whatever you need.

But to do that, you have to let go of the idea that the universal priority is inherently better than the option. It certainly is for some people, mostly monogamous ones, who need it – and there’s nothing wrong with that!

Yet that may not be you.

The way I phrase it is, “Never give something to someone who you’re quietly expecting a trade back from.” If you’re holding space, emotionally or Google Calendarwise, for someone who doesn’t prioritize that space back for you, then definitely take a step back.

But a lot of times, you can be forge a perfectly happy relationship with people who don’t prioritize you in all the ways you’d like to be prioritized – you just quietly say, “Okay, that’s not the kind of relationship we have, I can’t get that kind of support from them – is this still worth having?”

A lot of times it still is.

And the more you can remember that, the happier you’ll be in polyamorous relationships.

I Don’t Swear To Offend You, I Swear.

“We’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.”

So said Rashida Tlaib in a speech – which caused a stir, because good people are not supposed to swear, and if they swear that means they are so crude you can safely ignore them. Which I said, more or less, on Facebook – to which a friend replied, more or less:

“I don’t care whether anyone swears, but I do hate it when someone uses a shock word to cause outrage and then pretends they didn’t mean to.”

The problem is this:

When I say “fuck,” I am not trying to cause outrage.

I find the word “fuck” to be a satisfying amplifier. When I say, “That guy irritates me,” you get the gist, but “That fuckin’ guy” slams the point home emotionally. Saying “That’s weird” doesn’t convey the emotional valence that a good, solid “What the fuck?” does.

My swearing is not a calculated attempt to offend you – for me, the usage of expletives is like a peppery seasoning that makes my language pop. And it’s not that I am incapable of eschewing the obscenities, or that my intellect is not up to the challenge of stripping offensive oaths in the proper social situations – it’s that left to my own merits, I find the sounds of profanities to be melodious, providing a depth and resonance to sentences that no bowdlerized version could provide.

I mean, one of my greatest authorial achievements comes from when I had a videogame-wizard face down her enemy in a one-on-one fight and had her coin the phrase, “Mortal Kombat, motherfuckress.”

Yet the world being as large as it is, I acknowledge that people’s opinions differ. I was listening to a podcast this morning about a theater producer in the Deep South, who said “fuck” in the presence of children and was told in no uncertain words to get out of town or he’d be tarred and feathered. I acknowledge that, which is why I try not to swear around children until I’m told their parents are okay with it, and I don’t break into flurries of epithets at polite social gatherings.

But that’s not because I intended to offend you. I acknowledge that it does offend you.

But that’s not why I did it.

I did it because I myself enjoy it.

And I think of an idiotic idea I had a long time ago, which is sadly not uncommon among men today – that if a woman dresses in a sexy way, she clearly was out to turn me on. And ever since I’ve stepped away from a simple black T-shirt and jean ensemble into more in-depth fashion, I’ve learned that yes, sometimes I do look quite dapper, but often I’m not dressing up to impress anyone but myself. The fact that other people like my style can be a factor in why I dress up on any single day – but given that having, say, pretty pretty princess fingernails means that I have to cope with strange women continually grabbing at my hands without my consent means that some days I dress up to please myself despite other people’s reactions.

My friend who left the comment is female. I think if she complained about a guy catcalling her and I said, “I don’t care how anyone dresses, but I do hate it when someone wears outfits to turn people on and then pretends they didn’t mean to,” she’d rightfully tear my head off.

(As my friends did back in the day. Thankfully.)

Likewise, framing swearing as an act inevitably intended to instill outrage is a cultural window I think we should view carefully. I’m from a culture where swearing is a very casual thing, and in fact if you look at George Carlin, some have turned swearing into a thing of beauty. And yes, probably coming from a politician it probably is a studied act of outrage, but it may also be a case where her natural tendencies to think of swearing as a beautiful punctuation overlapped with her need to make a splash in the media.

Yet I think there’s a danger in assuming that someone’s actions must be driven by an intention to provoke a reaction in you, regardless of what that action is. I’ve seen that allegation levied at gay people, at trans people, at all sorts of other behaviors – and more often than not, what people are doing is living the life they want to and being braced for a blowback they’d prefer didn’t exist, but have to deal with being the realistic people they are.

And you know what the people who give that blowback are?

Those fuckin’ guys.

A Ferrett In Chicago (At A Convention!) (This Weekend!)

A Ferrett In Chicago (At A Convention!) (This Weekend!)

If you’ve got no plans this weekend and want to see a Ferrett, I’ll be at Capricon in Chicago. What’s special about that?

1) It’s my first time visiting a convention in Chicago. So if you’ve wanted to meet me, well, I’ll be there.

2) My time-travelling soup battle book The Sol Majestic is coming out in June, and I’ll be reading a special excerpt from it there. I’m doing a solo reading, and I’ll be bringing two advance review copies of the book to give away to people who show up and want it.

(Alternatively, if you order the book in advance, you’ll get a signed bookplate and other free swag. But you gotta preorder soon.)

So here’s my schedule, in the unlikely event you’d like to intersect with a Ferrett:

Friday at 5:30 p.m.: Literary Economics
The Sol Majestic is about the running of a space-bound restaurant and so has a surprising amount of economics in it. Plus, I’ll be recommending the shit out of Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and The Coin series.

Saturday at 11:30 a.m.: I Read From My Book THE SOL MAJESTIC
I have no idea whether anyone will attend. Maybe it will be you.

Saturday at 1:00 p.m.: Ferrett Signs Books!

Saturday at 2:30 p.m.: Social Media and Mental Health
You may have noticed my social anxiety has impacted my blogging habits a bit of late, and I’ll be discussing how to work the two on this panel.

Saturday at 7:00 p.m.: Hipster Cthulhu
In which I shout the praises of Cassandra Khaw and Matt Ruff.

Sunday at 10:00 a.m.: The Business of Writing
A.k.a., “How to make whatever money you can effectively at books.” It’s a learning process. Come learn.

Anyway. I’ll be new at that convention, and nervous, so if you see me – I’m easy to spot, check the fingernails – please say hi. I’ll be happy to talk to you, if I’m not on my way to a panel.

I Beat Bloodborne, And It Wasn’t That Hard (And I’m Not That Good A Gamer)

I Beat Bloodborne, And It Wasn’t That Hard (And I’m Not That Good A Gamer)

Sometimes, what you hate is the culture that grew around a thing, not the thing itself. For example: Bloodborne is a good videogame.

Bloodborne’s fans are often really full of themselves.

See, Bloodborne is hard. Infamously hard. And there’s no way to turn the difficulty down, so you either “Git gud” or you give up. And the people who’ve beaten Bloodborne (or any Dark Souls game) seem to take beating Bloodborne as a supreme achievement that exalts them above other players – anyone who can’t beat the game is a lower form of gamer, one who cannot cope, and thus not a True Gamer.

I beat it this week.

That’s why I know this is bullshit.

Now, this is not to say that Bloodborne doesn’t reward skill; it does. I’ve watched enough videos of people who’ve waltzed through insanely gruelling boss fights without taking a single hit to realize that Bloodborne is an intensely fair game at the core: if you study the enemy moves well enough to know what’s coming and master your own weapon of choice to know when to strike, you’ll win.

Or you could doof it out like I did.

As a real-life example: I was having severe problems beating a boss called Micolash, Host of the Nightmare. (If you like beating bosses with badass names, Bloodborne is full of them.) And Micolash spams a move called Call From Beyond that’s near-impossible to interrupt once it starts, is extremely difficult to dodge, and almost always one-shots me.

Now, I could Git Gud and learn to stick close to Micolash – pressuring him so he doesn’t take the opportunity to Call From Beyond, using fine technique to dodge his tentacle-arms in close-quarters combat.

Or I could do what I did do and fight until the Random Numbers God smiled upon me and Micolash chose not to use his insta-kill move on me, and I won.

Gud game.

Like I said: Bloodborne does reward skill, and someone who knew what they were doing would doubtlessly house Micolash, who’s considered one of the lower-difficulty bosses. But Bloodborne’s dirty little secret is this:

It rewards skill, but it also rewards dog-faced tenacity.

People talk about how hard Bloodborne is, but the fact is that aside from potentially losing some XP, there’s zero consequence to dying. I died probably forty times to The Blood-Starved Beast – my personal nemesis in this damn game – and after every death Bloodborne said, “Right, get back in there, off y’go.” Unlike genuinely Nintendo Hard games, where you got three lives and had to display massive skill to get rewarded with a fourth, Bloodborne’s parade of endless lives lets you Groundhog Day yourself to eventual victory.

It’s not without skill, of course. You have to learn how each boss wants you to defeat it. But I’d say any competent gamer can get through Bloodborne. It’s not hard, ultimately; it just requires a mindset that says “I’ll endure frustration endless times until I eventually break through.”

Which is a fine approach.

I just dislike it when that approach is held up as the only True Way to enjoy gaming.

Because it seems like a lot of the Dark Souls fans are not looking for fellow fans, per se, but instead are seeking some way to elevate themselves. Yeah, you got gud – but the fact that someone else walked away from the game doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that “They do not enjoy this challenge of failing repeatedly.”

And gaming should be fun.

Look, I mean, I ultimately share your approach of “treat every game like it’s a job,” or else I wouldn’t have finished Bloodborne (and I may play it through on New Game+ to see the DLC). But the delight of games is that there’s a hundred different ways to extract pleasure from them – whether that’s razzing your friends on Fortnight or killing a spare minute or two with a few rounds of Bejeweled or roleplaying through the almost challenge-free story of A Night In The Woods.

Trying to wrangle yourself into some superior position because you have fun honing skills and climbing competitive ladders undermines how wide and deep gaming is. There’s no true path here aside from “fun,” and trying to claim that only true gamers share your definition of “fun” is the exclusionary bullshit that a lot of people go to gaming to get away from.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting gud. I love watching speedruns of Bloodborne. I love reading the high-tier strategies. And I’m looking forward to screaming at the Orphan of Kos with the rest of you, then screaming in triumph because I GOT THERE. But in the end, you’re no better than my eight-year-old godson playing Pokemon Go imperfectly, because you’re both equally into it.

The only difference is, he’s not trying to convince you there’s some moral benefit in catching this Caterpie.

He just loves the shit out of it.

On STIs: Words I Didn’t Know I Needed

My friend Katspaw is a medical professional who specializes in treating sexually transmitted illnesses – and she loves her work so much so that you’d better be braced whenever you go out to dinner with her, because you will hear stories of the latest trends.

Fortunately, she’s so cheerfully super-positive about her work that you look forward to the next dinner. So when she told me, “I want to do presentations on STIs for the kink community,” I was stoked to see what she’d come up with.

Which is how my partner and I wound up sitting in her dining room as she gave me a dry-run on her presentation “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Sexually Transmitted Infections but Were Afraid to Ask.” Which was entertaining, because her meme game is strong.

I learned a lot of things from that presentation, mainly because there’s been a lot of advances in both the technology used to treat STIs over the last decade that I hadn’t kept up with, and STIs themselves have also changed, as evolution mandates. And I gave some feedback to help fine-tune her message, but mostly I just sat back and listened to someone far more knowledgeable than I educate me.

But the one thing my partner and I were able to help with was discussing some of the stigma around STIs in the community – we’d seen people drop out from scening altogether from the shame of picking up HSV, folks shunned from poly groups when they’d tested positive for something treatable with a shot in the butt, and a lot of fear swirling around in general.

And Katspaw raised herself up, quietly furious, and said this (though I’m paraphrasing):

“There’s no difference between picking up an STI and getting any other disease. The most common virus you’re likely to get at an orgy is the flu; from a medical perspective, there’s little difference between getting trichinosis and lice, or chicken pox and HSV.

“Anything you get these days can be treated or managed, so shaming anyone for picking up something is ridiculous. And if you can’t handle that reality, then maybe you’re not mature enough to be having sex.”

We applauded.

And of course, I can hear the usual objections about “I don’t want to get an STI,” which nobody does, but then again we don’t want to pick up a cold from dropping our kid off at school, but we don’t stigmatize and isolate people for getting it.

(And before anyone carps: from Katspaw’s perspective, HSV is so widespread and so comparatively minor in most cases that the community terror over someone having herpes is absurd to her.)

As someone who watched his hemophiliac uncle lose most of his friends for the sin of contracting HIV from a blood transfusion during the AIDS scare of the 1980s, I’m highly sensitive to people rejecting folks for overblown medical terrors. And Katpaw’s perspective was something so refreshing that I didn’t realize I needed it: she believes, quite sanely, that an STI is like any other disease. We don’t want them, we should take precautions like dental dams and condoms and routine STI checks, but at the end of the day they’re just another risk we run of dealing with other people.

Which is just nice to hear.

Katspaw was at Winter Wickedness in Columbus, and her first presentation went well. If you’re interested in having her present at your convention, well, lemme know and I’ll pass it along to her.