In Entry 35 I had just been dealing with the “right time” when existing partners and loved ones should be informed of the potential blossoming of a new love. In this Entry I would like to supplement this question with the important idea of “transparency“.
“Transparency” is already one of the terms occasionally mentioned in Polyamory; it is in any case a basic value of Oligoamory – which I already introduced in Entry 3.
“Transparency” is a somewhat cumbersome term, which is rarely encountered outside ethical non-monogamy, especially concerning the context of relationship management. Transparency – this is actually better known from the political discourse, the financial sector or governmental proceedings. But even in the those areas, says Wikipedia, transparency “describes actions and approaches that radically increase the openness of organizational process and data”.
But transparency also has a social dimension, so that it “is operating in such a way that it is easy for others to see what actions are performed. Transparency implies openness, communication, and accountability”.
And the Psychological Dictionary states: “[Transparency means] genuineness in relating to other individuals, with little attempt at making a positive impression”.
Accordingly, what I want to say as an author is thus: Without transparency, it is difficult to imagine any formation or conduct of a relationship that craves for all-round sincerity and knowledgeability.
For what is the task, more precisely: the function of transparency in a multiple relationship?
The authors of the book “More Than Two – a practical guide to ethical Polyamory” (2014), Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert explain in the chapter describing their “Relationship Bill of Rights” that transparency combines three ideas that are fundamental to ethical multiple relationships – consent, honesty and agency; in their words:
“Consent is about you: your body, your mind and your choices. Your consent is required to access what is yours. The people around you have agency: they do not need your consent to act, because you do not own their bodies, minds or choices. But if their behavior crosses into your personal space, then they need your consent. […]
Honesty, therefore, is an indispensable part of consent. Being able to share, to the best of your abilities, who you are in a relationship is critical for that relationship to be consensual. You must give your partners the opportunity to make an informed decision to be in a relationship with you. If you lie or withhold critical information, you remove your partners’ ability to consent to be in the relationship. […] Your partners deserve to have a choice about how they want to participate in a relationship with you given new information. You cannot force someone to make the choice you want them to make, and if you lie or withhold information, you deny them the ability to know there was a choice to be made. [Also] an omission is a lie when it is calculated to conceal information that, were it known to the other party, would be materially relevant to it.
Agency is also intertwined with consent. […] We ask you to look at your partners and ask yourself if you respect their ability to choose – even if a choice hurts you, even if it’s not what you would choose – because we cannot consent if we do not have a choice.
Empowering people to make their own choices is actually the best way to have our own needs met. People who feel disempowered can become dangerous. Communicating our needs, and equipping others to meet them, succeeds more often than attempting to restrict or coerce another into meeting them.”
In the oligoamorous understanding, “transparency” therefore always has two dimensions:
On the one hand, towards the new emerging love and potential new partners. Although there is much talk of a “freedom of expectation” in polyamorous circles (see Entry 2), we should be very realistic and truly straightforward here: For, of course, there are good personal reasons in everyone of us, why we are currently dating, or, to make a long story short: why we would like to have more or new people and loved ones in our lives – even if we are “just” at a point where we feel that we have the capacity to engage in a new relationship… And as far as the “how ” is concerned, it would be rather dishonest if we would try to operate with the stereotype of “everything is possible“: Almost all adult people are involved somewhere in at least temporal obligations and commitments, such as work, existing relationships, family, etc., which very rarely makes us “completely free” in the arrangement of further additional relationships.
Therefore, according to Veaux and Rickert, we are asked to actively put our potential new loved ones in a state prepared for “informed decision-making”: Do they want to come to terms with our “given circumstances”? From their perspective, is the “wide space” that we offer them in our hearts definitely more than a mere niche in an already densely packed crowd?
On the other hand there are also the dear people in our existing relationships. And since they already share significant parts of our lives in which they are invested and participate, they are already as well part of our personal triad of “consent, honesty and agency“. Anyone who doesn’t say “But of course!” now either already has a dramatic black hole in the existing relationships or a highly spectacular view of his*her personal integrity. Because: Transparency, as I formulate it here, is – relating to the existing relationships – a characteristic of whether we really identify ourselves with these relationships – which means: if we have accepted them as part of us and our lives.
Since at this point we touch the so often disputed “faithfulness in multiple relationships”. If our identification with our assumed relationships and commitments is intact, then we are definitely faithful. Exactly, as even Wikipedia puts it: “the concept of unfailingly remaining loyal to someone or something, and putting that loyalty into consistent practice regardless of extenuating circumstances”. And trust and loyalty literally form the bedrock on which every human relationship stands or shatters.
Transparency thus always acts as a signal in two directions:
Even if we haven’t accumulated a common basis of trust yet, I can at least demonstrate to a newly arrived person that I am doing my best to be consistent regarding my value system in every possible way. Questions about my motivations may then still confuse me (because undraped self-honesty is something we are not necessarily used to from everyday life) – but they can not throw me off completely, as there are no more “corpses in the closet” who, on inappropriate opportunity, will suddenly rise to reveal a completely different picture of me than I pretended to display. Even if the potential connection doesn’t come to realisation in the end, I have always been on an ethically secure ground: I did not try to advertise a pretty façade of mine, but the other person decided freely for or against me for her own good reasons.
And regarding my present partners and loved ones I demonstrate with my transparent behaviour that I am a “reliable customer” and thus complement the existing trust. Because my motivations and my mindset may be changeable, but they are not arbitrary: My integrity, the indication “that my actions are based upon an internally consistent framework of principles” ” remains comprehensible for my direct environment. And that means that I remain accessible to all my significant others, that they, too, with their consent, their honesty and agency, are in an open-end dialogue with me. Which, in it self, is a good sign that our “emotional contract” is based on equal terms.
Impressive in terms of the consequences of transparency – and therefore recommended by my side – is the movie “Thanks for Sharing ” (2012) starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Mark Ruffalo as the characters “Phoebe” and “Adam”.
The movie is about a woman and a man, each of whom has a trait that could possibly be problematic for other people: Phoebe is considered a cured breast cancer patient, Mark in turn has managed to control his sex addiction by group therapy (analogue Anonymous Alcoholics) for five years in a row. The latter is therefore also the reason for Mark to challenge the possibility of a new relationship, and soon he also has a promising first date – with Phoebe. When the main characters “Phoebe” and “Adam” meet for the first time, a remarkable scene unfoldes:
As soon as the two have met (and a visual sympathy is quite obvious), Phoebe plainly reveals as the very first information about her the breast cancer issue. She admits that while she is considered a “survivor” and cured, she knows that for some people there may be a problem in such a case due to a statistical probability of recidivism, which is why she prefers to clarify this information about herself always right at the beginning. Mark Ruffalo plays “Adam” in this scene in a successful mix of surprise and compassion. And even as a spectator you are touched in this scene bya strange mixture of perplexity, being run over and astonishement: Was that truely necessary, bluntly and point-blank as that? Therefore, you can almost perceive in the movie scene the insecurity in the face of Mark Ruffalo, as the character Adam seems to briefly consider a pacifying social phrase like “Oh, no matter, everyone’s got breast cancer nowadays…”, but then he actually captures what Phoebe just truely said – and he manages to pull himself together in time, to remain serious and understanding, and to demonstrate that he is sympathetic with her condition.
While the audience still ponders “Now that was really extraordinarily self-honest, was it?…” the Phoebe-character chatters on in relief. And we think: “Come on Adam, be brave; she has put her cards on the table – now it’s your turn, she can handle it, having edges and flaws of her own…!” The Adam-character also struggles visibly for a few seconds with this good intent, as Phoebe suddenly speaks of her brother who is an alcoholic, which is why she never wanted to get into a relationship with anyone who has an addiction-background… Outch! Of course, just now, the moment for last minute painful transparency and audacious truth has arrived. And maybe Mark should have tested Phoebe anyway, to see if 1. initial sympathy could overcome her old resentments and 2. to demonstrate that, like Phoebe herself, he is considered “cured”… But of course – this is Hollywood Cinema (which sometimes looks like real life): Mark remains silent, partly rattled, partly anxious – and he is so glad to finally have a date again, that he ommits an important detail of his personality, thereby withholding essential information. The drama that later unfolds is a major feature of the movie…
(And that’s why in Oligoamory, as mentioned in Entry 35, for transparency also applies: “timely” means “immediately“, or “100% from the outset“. Empower yourselves!)