Out…, in…, out…, in…
Last month, the young Swiss PoC columnist Noa Dibbasey wrote about her Generation Z and their attitude towards polyamorous ambitions: »”We’re open now,” they say, and dabble in multiple relationships driving. They go through a roller coaster of emotions. Discuss it with their partners. Quite often. “This almost amounts to a 40 percent workload.” And then, “As of today, we’re closed again!” Not everyone, but many. Most return to the status quo after giving it a try.«¹
Humorous and aptly observed, I would say – but at the same time I would add that, strictly speaking, this procedure can be perceived in all age groups of candidates concerning potential multiple relationships. To some people who describe themselves as polyamorous, this may even happen a few times in their lives. And as compassionately as Noa Dibbasey judges her fellow sufferers at the end of her column, that regardless of this, in any case, communication practice has been gained, an attitude of openness and transparency has been demonstrated…. – …I truly wonder why our way of life is subject to such a regular on/off factor.
Genuinely “queer” is such an “out of the broom closet!” and then a “…back into the broom closet…” not at all. In my Entry 65, I assign the poly- and oligoamorous ways of life to the queer spectrum. Characteristic for the vast majority of people in the queer LGBTQ+ spectrum, however, is that almost all of them have experienced this irreversible moment of “coming out” at some point in their lives, a situation that on the one hand represents the first public confession of one’s own queer identity – which on the other hand also constitutes a kind of “point of no return” in one’s own biography and in being perceived by the outside world.
We however, who have discovered our potential for the conduct of Polyamory (by which I mean all those who have manifested in themselves a feeling and striving towards a [love]life in ethical multiple relationships), obviously seem to keep it a little different in this respect at times, a little opportunistic perhaps – and therefore possibly not always as unselfish or true to ourselves as we might be…
First of all, there is, for example, perhaps exactly the initial relationship-experimentation-phase of our youth referred to above by Ms. Dibbasey. And suddenly “we Poly-/Oligoamorists” find ourselves there for the first time in a surprising constellation of three or four participants, because there is some part of us that does not want to conform to the guidelines of an environment that is still predominantly monogamous: That when an additional person is introduced to a relationship arrangement, another must leave so as not to exceed the still predominantly socially approved basic number of “2”.
In Noa Dibbassy’s words, the “return from the experimental to the status quo”, though, usually happens very often afterwards, when it’s time to move on from “wild youth” into the “start-up- years” in terms of jobs, careers and family planning. Like a somewhat embarrassing manga poster featuring hitherto revered superheroes, thoughts of truly viable multiple relationships disappear back into the closet for the time being – at a point in life when we are very much confronted with the mononormative “glass ceiling.”: Institutions and realities of our average society, all of which are tailored to the “two-person box,” from the application for a social housing apartment to the entitlement to child benefits all the way to the protective status of marriage – each with pending procedures and documents that legitimize only two people.
It is not only this de facto state of affairs that makes alternative life planning with several partners difficult – and which could possibly be tackled differently in organizational terms with a little skill and daring. It is rather the pressure, which is exerted in such a way on possible multiple relationships – and which inevitably will turn into internal dynamite there – who would have to limit her*himself before the law now with the third or fourth fiddle – and whose connection should be ennobled as the “main partnership”…
For the aforementioned “third” or “fourth parties” such an authority-imposed “non-inclusion” is hardly attractive – and therefore this is a critical moment, which many early multiple relationships also do not survive. The parts of a former polycule that have been shattered into individual atoms now mostly struggle along alone or, at best, in pairs – and this, of all things, in this previously stated “start-up-period,” when further helping hands, additional income or a surplus of imaginative minds would be of the greatest value to one’s own social group. Not to mention the legendary “whole village” that it would take to raise children – and so even our descendants usually experience and learn once more that love and partnership is probably something that is supposed to exist (only) between two people…
Once the career path is halfway booked, once the children have been produced, which today are all too often considered proof of a happy relationship, the door to the polyamorous broom closet will eventually open once again with a vengeance: Gone are the shaky start-up-days, and now there are finally hard-earned resources gathered under toil and sweat, which also allow the freedom to finally get one’s own thinking and feeling a bit out of the daily routine rut. There surely has be more than house, car, children, dog and the marriage-sex-provider with whom you have established all this…
Maybe we plan it, often it “happens” to us – and in fact one day we find ourselves having romantic feelings for more than one other person (again).
From then on, until the midlife crisis, we often try to get through with the door “half-open,” so to speak. Because in many cases, we still have parents who associate multiple relationship arrangements with Greenwich Village or the Mormons at best, gym buddies and shopping-BFFs who tell us that when a new person joins the relationship, it’s certainly just a bridgehead for breaking up in the near future – and work colleagues and neighbours who probably consider the occasionally changing cars parked in front of our door either as proof of our lively activity in swinging communities and/or as an epitome of our crumbling marriage.
Therefore, too much candid “coming-out” is out of the question, our name, our social position our career, indeed our whole reputation is at stake.
However, “not completely candid” about our relationships also means that we are generally not completely candid with our partners too – and therefore, strictly speaking, not with ourselves as well. So who is surprised if this period, as we change our coming-out status with the mutability of a chameleon depending on the social context, puts us in a drift ice field of emergent sensitivities such as petty narcissisms and situational shenanigans on the one hand, as well as deferentiality, envy, jealousy, fear of abandonment, and other unresolved anxieties on the other. Rarely before or ever after do we experience ourselves again treading on such a treacherous spider’s web in a nervous balancing act between the struggle for our identity and the expectations of others.
The German specialist for internal medicine and psychotherapist Dr. Dietmar Hanisch writes about these issues: »Relationships with our fellow human beings are indeed ambivalent: They can be our most important sources of protection, but they can also be extreme stressors. For us humans, being socially integrated is absolutely necessary for survival. Our urge for social recognition is therefore extraordinarily intense. And this unfolds in our brains, which have a strong tendency to reflect anyway. […]
In addition, our thinking has a bias towards idealization, exaggeration, and absolutization: We want to be loved by everyone, want everyone to fulfil our expectations. If this is not so, it inevitably causes stress.«²
If only, as Noa Dibbasey concludes in her article mentioned at the beginning of this entry, we could have at least taken constructive multiple relationship experiences from our first attempts at walking !But this is usually not the case and so during the “second lap” we still have to sort out for ourselves many issues that have remained as yet unsolved.
A recurring question here is very often how we can find a healthy relationship between autonomy and perceived heteronomy, where, as I wrote in Entry 70, we are predominantly accustomed from our conventions to classify here in “winning” and “losing”: Who has the right to call the shots in a relationship? After all, I’m not a child anymore!
Developing autonomy and self-efficacy is good – but these must not develop into a self-imposed antithesis to commitment.
Therefore I, Oligotropos, often dread those who “love openly” (Entry 67) in the sense of “free love“, which they understand in such a way that they assign this love in each case only after personally assessed availability, just as it suits or seems favourable.
Though I’m reluctant to say it – the important polyamorous core value of “commitment” and self-dedication always proves itself in the infamous “bad times” when it really matters to walk that proverbial “extra yard” beyond your comfort zone on behalf of the favourite people in your life.
In her article for the Brigitte-magazine earlier this month, editor Janina Oehlbrecht identifies self-confidence, attention for those involved, communication (who would have guessed?) and the emergence of familiar routines as fundamental for successful, long-term relationships. She adds respect, maturity, and an advanced understanding of each other.³
It is precisely these latter three that I personally consider to be crucial factors, precisely because they cannot be obtained quickly or via shortcuts.
Successful, long-term (multiple) relationships are in this sense of course also a gift (namely from our favourite people to us) – but our contribution in this is considerable and we can certainly “work” towards them in a substantial way.
For many free spirits from the world of free love this “relationship work” is a red flag, because this phrasing sounds so uneasy, like making an effort and demanding.
Those who have followed me through 83 Entries on the subject of Oligoamory so far, know that in my view this “work” consists above all in a voyage of discovery towards our very own self, which is always worth experiencing.
Above, I mention the widely discussed midlife crisis as a milestone of our “second coming out”. The founder of the term, the Canadian psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques, identified its trigger as the realization of one’s own mortality. I would perhaps put it more gently with a sports metaphor: The realization that life is distinctly turning to the “second half”.
Children (more or less) out of the house? Career goals reasonably established? Financially somewhat settled?
And what about our relationship life? Undergone three, four romantic entanglements and yet alone? Or persevered at all costs in a mediocre partnership with mid-range cars in order not to jeopardize the median value of the joint assets?
And polyamorous? Of the “befriended couples” no one has remained, the attempts to integrate additional partners into life all without success? Indulged yourself on neotantric weekends and sex-positive parties – and yet, one by one, even the last need fulfillers disappeared, because they recently had to attend to some care-dependent parent or their own oncological diagnosis…?
Sometimes our closet-door has already closed again – seemingly of its own accord: We have tried, struggled, quarrelled, reconciled, doing the best we could, and yet nothing lasting has come of it (Entry 78).
Eventually, starting in our 50s, we may begin to feel closer to the idea of a multi-generational home than a libertarian hippie commune – and the idea of “alone in old age” reaches out to us quite vividly and with a cold hand. Possibly time to open that polyamorous broom closet again…
…or isn’t it rather the “whole village” mentioned at the beginning that we are now trying to reach after all? The one with the helping hands and imaginative minds?
But then, perhaps one in which we wanted to feel loved, appreciated and accepted for our own sake at last.
Do we really have to wait so long for this, always a hand by the closet door?
At the end of my Entry today, I therefore quickly would like to offer some queer encouragement.
In the book by queer author Sah D’Simone that I reviewed in my last Entry, he compares his coming out to discovering his “spiritual superpower” with which he not only contributes to a livable and diverse world, but because of which he is also needed by that very world and therefore inalienably connected to it.
The affirmation he used to implement his move is “Because I’m worth it!”.
He writes about this experience:
»I left my hiding place, and the way I celebrate my individuality was not everyone’s cup of tea. I had to learn that that was okay. I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. The risk was more than worth it. I found myself, my people and my purpose in life. Maybe when you leave your metaphorical hiding place, you too will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But you must trust that you will find your belonging, your purpose, your abundance and healing.«
As far as we in Oligo- and Polyamory are concerned, in my eyes the US-American theologian and writer Thomas Feverel Merton expressed this belonging, destiny, abundance and healing best in his book “No man is an island” in 1959 with the following words:
»Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone – we find it with another.«
¹ “My Generation” column on open relationships “Der Dreier und s’Weggli“ from 20.10.2022 on blick.ch (online) [Link available only in German language]
² Interview in GEO Wissen Gesundheit No. 17: (June 2022) “What makes the soul strong” [Publication available only in German language]
³ “4 habits of people in happy long-term relationships“ on brigitte.de (online) [Link available only in German language]
Thanks to the Kurt Löwenstein Education Center on flickr.com for the photo!