I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how Polyamorists approach their relationships. It’s actually something that’s been burning in the back of my brain for months, but in the past few days several of my ideas have been raised in conversation independently by two different people, and brought to the forefront of my mind. It’s an area in which I feel strangely isolated from the Poly community, and I think I’m beginning to understand why.
I read a book eons ago by Judith Wallerstein that discussed varying types of relationship styles. The idea was that most relationships, at their heart, are rooted in a single means of relating to each other. She presented four models. Two of them are mercifully irrelevant to me (a ‘traditional’ model rooted in gender roles, and a ‘rescue’ model rooted in healing from a traumatic past). But the difference between her other two models has stuck with me for many years, and it’s come back to me this week as I’ve tried to wrap my brain around why some of us are bothered by typical Poly relationships.
My perception is that most Poly relationships follow a ‘romantic’ model, where sex is at the heart of the way people relate to each other. When they meet someone new that they’re interested in, they start the sexytimes within the first couple of dates, and it’s a huge part of what defines the relationship. The relationships of course involve more than that – that’s what differentiates Polyamory from Swinging – but the basis for the connection is still largely rooted in sex. This makes sense. The most obvious defining characteristic of Polyamory is our willingness to have sex with more than one person, and I suspect that this desire for multiple sexual partners is one of the largest incentives for people to begin defining themselves as Poly.
But I feel like I’m wired a little bit differently than that. Actually, I suspect a lot of us are. Sex is important to me, of course, but I wouldn’t consider it the focal point of any of my relationships. Instead I tend to follow a fourth model – one of ‘companionate’ relationships based primarily on friendship. In fact, when I really think about it, I’d say that every highly successful relationship I’ve had has been one in which I became good friends with the other person before we later evolved into partners. And I tend to use sex less as a bonding tool, and more as a means of expressing a connection that already exists between myself and another person.
But this can be challenging in the Poly world. Sexually-based relationships feel like a norm in our community, and one that is rarely questioned. Whether this norm is real or perceived, I feel a lot of pressure to conform to it. I don’t think that pressure necessarily comes from my partners; for all I know they’re in the same boat I am. But as I’ve been thinking about it this week, I’ve realized that more than once I’ve assumed that Poly partners wanted a sexually-driven relationship without explicitly discussing it with them first (especially if we met through a Meetup event or OKC, which adds weight to the expectation of having a sexual relationship). This clearly seems to be the wrong way to go about things.
At the same time, it’s not as though I don’t like sex quite a lot, and it’s not as though I don’t often find myself highly sexually attracted to people I’ve only just begun seeing. Of course I sometimes get the urge to rip a partner’s clothes off on an early date! And given the fact that I’ve just identified myself as a friends-first type of girl, I’m not entirely sure what I should do about that urge. Resist? Every time? Or is it equally possible that I could, in fact, one day have a relationship that is a successful sex-first-type relationship too?
It seems like I always come back to the idea that I should just relax and let each relationship take its natural course. If I’ve started seeing someone and we want to dive into sex, great. If I’m talking with someone else and we’ve had conversations about wanting to build friendships first, and so hang out together a few times with no pressure to hop on the relationship escalator, well, that sounds awesome, too.
And if both are happening simultaneously, well, isn’t that what being Poly is all about? 🙂