…and not exclusively?
Generally on this bLog I advocate that Oligoamory should be something “that you do” – and not something “that happens to you”. By this I usually want to emphasize especially the awareness with which I wish here on this project, on how we perceive, maintain and cherish our multiple relationships.
In practice, of course, things look different in many cases. There, romantic multi-person configurations are still predominantly “an event” and much less often the result of strategic life planning. By which I mean that even now, in the third decade of the 21st century, surely few individuals (even if they were teenagers…) are sitting at home right now thinking, “Oh yeah, in a few years a community with two, three, four (…) intimate partners, that’s exactly how I envision my personal life later…” And who would then also actively go about realizing this idea consequently and on purpose.
Unless we were growing up within a very liberal, maybe even queer, background with strong individualistic rainbow role models, this would still be rather the huge exception.
What I’m getting at is that if we reflect on this idea for a moment, it’s striking how strongly we still think in terms of relationships in the dimension known as the “social escalator”.
As a reminder, the “social escalator” is that kind of lifestyle that is predominantly practised by the current mainstream society – and therefore usually the one that is supported by the current socio-economic structures. At present this is e.g. our western curriculum vitae, which consists of kindergarten, elementary school, secondary school, professional training and/or study for career entrance; the last phases of this process usually coincides with partner-finding, perhaps also already the outset towards the establishment of a family… – and with these first basic determinations we usually still start into our further life (and in this we are not particularly different than most generations before us).
In Entry 12 I mention the often quoted, resistant exclamation “I am not a number, I am a free man!” ¹, by which we usually want to point out that in our lives we are nevertheless the helmsmen of our self-chosen course – and would our biographies possibly also superficially appear boringly normative…
Yes, well… But then – strictly speaking – actually not.
Because the “social escalator” has been in operation for a very long time, longer than any one of us has been alive, it surrounds us to the greatest possible extent until today – and that, of course, “does” something to us.
And since this is a relationship bLog, in particular: It does something to us in terms of the way we “think relationships”.
At this point I have to be a bit cautious myself, because the basics of those influences that affect our human behaviour in love and in the choice of a companion are, from my point of view, still not well enough researched. Sociological considerations, such as in Friedemann Karig‘s compilation “How we love – The End of Monogamy” (Aufbau Taschenbuch 2018), or evolutionary approaches such as those of Christopher Ryan and Cynthia Jethá in “Sex at Dawn – How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern sexuality“ (Harper Perennial 2011) increasingly seem to indicate that Homo sapiens is definitely more strategically flexible and diverse in this respect than the forms of society currently prevailing on our planet might suggest. At the same time, the monogamous partnership model has been extremely successful on this very planet for many centuries (almost more like one, two millennia…), to which 8,075,200,000 Earth citizens currently bear witness (as of April 2023).
And I myself have to be personally careful, because as a bLogger I am not orbiting our earth like an alien being in a flying saucer as a neutral observer, but am subject to the same mechanisms and rules down here as all of you.
In Entry 84, I postulate the connection between two people as the “smallest polycule” – the smallest subunit of relationship(s), so to speak.
It seems like we as humans are closely tied to that first-ever “boy meets girl” [or boy meets boy or girl meets girl or divers meets boy, divers meets girl, divers meets divers…] after all.
A monogamous concept makes it easy in such a situation, because the pending emotional contract of monogamy includes “exclusivity” in the GTC (General Terms & Conditions), so that the two parties involved are allowed to fully concentrate on each other, both initially and in the future – indeed, in terms of the contract, they even have to.
Whoever, on the other hand, has dared to take the step into the universe of the possibilities of multiple relationships, at some point – at least mentally – took exactly this described exclusivity and…, well, what…? Discarded it? Defined it aside? At this point, I say with caution: …at least mellowed, moderated, reduced.
After all, for the reasons stated above and also for the reasons stated in Entry 84, I do not believe that exclusivity is a characteristic that we can completely deny in our human, romantic intimate relationships [or even turn it into its opposite “arbitrariness/interchangeability,” which would make no sense, at least by oligoamorous standards in matters of love and committed-sustained relationships (see also Entry 3)].
So exclusivity is still there despite mellowing, moderation or reduction. And thus we still have to face this fact even within multiple relationships.
A circumstance that is sometimes forgotten or rejected in Poly– and Oligoamory, and thus regularly causes suffering in these relationships.
For example, there is the “Unicorn phenomenon”. The much sought-after “Unicorn” is a seemingly “easy starter” especially for a (often but not only) heterosexual couple that is still inexperienced in multiple relationships: A ( in most cases female) person who is bisexual and therefore romantically as well as intimately compatible with both partners of the core couple. A kind of “passe-partout“, where little drama should be expected…
The downside of the legendary search for the Unicorn – or rather the finding of a Unicorn – is that in this arrangement it is predominantly confronted with the previously accumulated biographical exclusivity of the core couple. This applies on the one hand to the entitlement level: the core couple has agreed on the appropriate characteristics and criteria that the Unicorn should fulfil merely with each other and some time in advance; on the other hand, it applies to the protective rights of the individual: the Unicorn will just be ok as long as it fulfils its role equally and constantly towards both participants of the core couple. If this is no longer the case (and emotionally identical relationships are highly improbable on the part of humans when examined as a whole), the Unicorn endangers either its relationship with one of the partners (through unequal allocation of affection) or even the relationship of the core couple (because one of the partners feels more strongly attracted to the Unicorn than to the other core partner).
By which, in most cases, the unicorn is chased back into the woods in order not to further endanger or to restore the exclusive peace of the core relationship.
Or there is the so-called “Cowboy/Cowgirl/Cowdiverse phenomenon”: In a (core)couple, one party falls in love with another person, but the other party does not. The person joining now begins an intense romantic relationship with the involved party, so that the other person of the original core couple soon feels like the proverbial “5th wheel on the wagon” (that is, strictly speaking, rather the 3rd wheel…); experiencing despite many assertions of the contrary a strange kind of detachment and elemination. [A “Cowboy” in “classical” Polyamory actually represents a person who catches one person out of a “herd” of polyamorous people as if with a lasso and pulls it back into monogamy – but in consequence the manifestation and the experience here applies to the non-involved part of the core couple nevertheless.]
Again, also in this case, it is apparently the exclusivity that endangers a relationship, sabotages an overall togetherness, and in any case leads to a perceived imbalance.
I write “apparently” because I believe that most of us are still too much subject to the above-mentioned traditional “social escalator” with regard to “exclusivity”, which is by itself basically necessary as “core-glue” for every interpersonal relationship, both in the way we express it as well as in the way we experience it.
So, in a way, we are overdoing it because we are not used to handling it any other way – and therefore we are simply not so much capable of doing it any better.
According to the dictionary, “exclusivity” can be synonymized with “exclusiveness” and even with “absoluteness”. According to my observation, even in multiple relationships we often still behave exactly as if we were claiming precisely this kind of meaning for ourselves like some sort of inner imperative. It becomes particularly visible there, when conflicts arise: We defend our own actions with teeth and claws, almost always reducing what is happening to “a harmonious relationship to protect” on one side and “the destructive, jealous, envious, petty (etc…) other” on the opposite. Suddenly, strange protective instincts surge up in us, we demand autonomy for ourselves – or we insist on agreed regulations and established rights…
In particular, triangular configurations are therefore often considered to be particularly vulnerable and susceptible to crises in multiple relationship environments. Once exclusivity unfolds its explosive power with its purely exclusionary or insistent forces in such a close arrangement, things will almost always turn out fatal.
Additionally fatal: when we experience the mellowing, moderation or reduction of exclusivity in our (multiple) relationships as a threat to our very selves.
The mentioned initial exclusivity referred to in Entry 84, which promotes the inner magnetism between two people, is basically something very important: Through this we experience that it is us who are wanted and meant.
In the monogamous world in which most of us grew up, however, exclusivity has often been handled as a promise, as a kind of reward that would come to us in our (future) partnership.
And a reward is part of a system in which achievements matter.
Many of us come from backgrounds where we have experienced little encouragement for our core selves while growing up. Often we have been treated arbitrarily or interchangeably, and precisely because of this we sometimes could not tell without self-doubt whether we were wanted or meant. Many times we were not really sure of our wonderful uniqueness in all our doing and being, in other words, of our healthy exclusiveness. Instead, we had to cope with possessive, fearful, or even rejecting parenting or attachment styles, in which we often had to perform up front with conformist and/or expected behaviour in order to receive any positive response at all (see also Entry 14).
Therefore, if one day we find ourselves in polyamorous circumstances, we can quickly run into problems with such an unfavourable preconception. A monogamous relationship promises us in its GTC the assurance of exclusivity in our partnership that we are about to establish, by which we, with a poorly positioned core self, all too easily interpret that a monogamous partnership finally will guarantee us the desired uniqueness and thus the recognition of our individual essence.
Also, in Poly- and Oligoamory, as I point out in Entry 14 as well, in order for these to succeed, we need to be able to experience affirmation, trust, acceptance, empathy, and affection. But there, in contrast, it is precisely not the task of exclusivity to ensure this.
Exclusivity in multiple relationships, serves there – as I quote the bLogger Sacriba in Entry 84 – rather to create confidential spaces for vulnerability and authenticity and to thereby (re)generate energy, which can then benefit the overall relationship in turn.
In a Polyamory forum, of which I am a member, the question came up about a month ago whether multiple relationships as a whole need a unifying “purpose” – somewhat like a club or a charitable foundation.
I think that’s true in a sense, it’s what I call “the mutual we” in many of my entries.
This “mutual we”, however, can be configured very differently; it is more like the frequently used advertising slogan “[…] is a feeling!” (therefore, please insert at […] your own thing).
However, it is precisely this feeling of “we are somehow all in this together” that is at the same time so important if it is meant to prevent the above-mentioned problematic conception and application of exclusivity in multiple relationships: Multiple relationships are not a cake where those involved can cut out “their piece” unobserved and then on top of that possibly eat it somewhere else.
Thus, dealing with exclusivity in multiple relationship contexts will always be a touchstone for the state of communality that exists in the overall relationship.
For most of us, however, the fact that this approach to exclusivity in particular will always be a touchstone for our own inner poise will probably weigh more heavily: Whether we have a well-established core self, whether we have learned to express our needs, whether we believe in ourselves.
Or whether we regularly cling fiercely to what we are trying to hold on to for ourselves, because we are still missing so much, because never was anything granted to us; and thus we will experience ourselves relativized and suspended as long as exclusivity still has to serve as compensation for our appreciation and uniqueness.
I leave today’s closing words to the American lawyer, writer, trans activist, and associate professor Dean Spade, who said:
»The point for me is to create relationships based on deeper and more real notions of trust. So that love becomes defined not by exclusivity, but by actual respect, concern, commitment to act with kind intentions, accountability for our actions, and a desire for mutual growth.«