The most important facet of any relationship is that everyone be treated with kindness and respect. Hierarchical terms do not accomplish that.
I am poly. I do not consider this a choice. I was born poly, tried unsuccessfully to maintain monogamous relationships for many years, and finally started accepting my poly self when I was 24, seven years ago.
In those seven years, I have read and listened to a lot of different versions of what people mean when they self-describe as poly. This recent article in the New York Times does a thoughtful job of depicting marriages or relationships that began monogamous and then opened up.
Though I respect that this experience is true and valid for all these couples, I always find myself bristling a little at the idea of poly being something that a couple just takes up together, like tennis or baking. I don’t believe that I chose to be poly any more than a person chooses their sexual orientation or skin color.
I came across this beautiful, angry article on polynormativity a few years ago and was enchanted with it. The writer is frustrated with the popularization of poly and some of the negative or even harmful behaviors taken up in its name, like one partner telling another partner that sex outside the relationship is OK but that they’re not allowed to fall in love with someone else.
How ludicrous. Can you imagine lying next to someone you’re sleeping with, your heads resting on your sweaty arms in post-coital camaraderie and hearing them say, “this has been great, but just keep in mind that my spouse won’t allow me to develop any feelings for you”?
I also hate the ubiquitous term “primary partner.” It logically implies that every other partner is secondary. You wouldn’t do that to a friend, right? Imagine saying, this person is my primary friend and so all you other people are secondary friends. So why on earth would it be OK to do that to a romantic partner? In polynormative situations, it is common for a primary partner to decide that a metamour (meaning, a partner’s partner) isn’t allowed anymore and must therefore be broken up with. Whether a relationship ends should never be decided by a partner not in that relationship.
One of the most important comparisons Andrea Zanin makes in the polynormativity article is this: Love is supposed to be concerned with constructing a healthy, flourishing garden together, not obsessed with building fences around it. A bond of love is not a scary, dangerous thing that must be strictly regulated.
I also dislike the term “primary” because it implies one, which again pigeon-holes poly into something more like Monogamy Lite, people with one partner seeing other partners. I know many people in the poly community here in D.C. who are very seriously committed to more than one partner. Poly terminology should allow for them, too.
The term I use is “nesting partner.” I live with my nesting partner of two years. We are committed and loving, partners in every way my monogamous friends are, with the obvious exception of strict ideas of fidelity. I’m not planning to live with any other partners, so I only have the one nesting partner, but it is certainly possible for a person to have multiple nesting partners.
So I reject the hierarchical language of primary and secondary. But I also can’t quite jump on the train of relationship anarchy (sometimes called poly anarchy), a philosophy that entirely rejects labels or rules in relationships. In theory, I love it. It sounds great. Proponents of relationship anarchy will tell you that it is all about living freely and independently.
For me, poly anarchy was rather impractical. My nesting partner and I do not have rules with each other, but we certainly have had to develop norms and guidelines. When we had just moved in together, my partner brought another partner over for a date, and, somewhat to my surprise, I was pretty upset about it. I felt a level of jealousy and hurt that I had not felt since I’d been in a monogamous relationship a decade earlier and been cheated on.
I realized that I had not had enough time in the new place to feel comfortable with my metamours coming over. When I spoke with my nesting partner about it, I was careful to couch it in respectful language, to leave rules and ultimatums out of it. “I’m not saying you have to do anything, but I’m really having a hard time with this, and I think I need some time in our place before we offer it up to other people.”
So poly, for me, falls somewhere in the middle of “let’s try out opening up our relationship” and graffitiing “no rules, ever!” in red on the side of a building. The most important facet of any relationship is that everyone be treated with kindness and respect. Hierarchical terms do not accomplish that. But relationship anarchy doesn’t necessarily accomplish that, either, since relationships are not quite as simple as gardens.
Hannah Rose Gelbard lives in Washington, D.C. She is a nerd, a feminist, and whatever the noun is for “constantly striving to be woke.”