After years of studying and practising polyamory, very few new books on the subject pique my interest. There are many more I disagree with. So I was delighted by my US colleague Jess Mahler’s newest offering–The Polyamorous Home.
Because for a community like ours which is founded on freedom of choice, there are an inordinately large number of ‘how-to’ manuals and blogs written, which fail to heed the huge diversity and much needed acceptance of differing human experience and culture. I have also and often been guilty of this. Perhaps it is our fate to believe we are the first ones in the world to discover something and are right about it, only to realise after a while that well yes, there may be something in what those more experienced than ourselves are saying.
From an inclusivity perspective, Jess Mahler’s book is a solid four star. It’s a good manual which provides a few a-ha moments and gives me better conceptual yet applicable frameworks to further my own growth. An indication of Jess’ own egalitarian perspective and promise of the book’s ‘a-ha’ potential comes up front in the glossary.
‘Yes, I’m John’s significant other. His other significant other is Marleen.’
So often ‘other significant other (OSO)’ is used as part of a prescriptive title denoting rank and from the perspective of the person with several partners as in, John is my ‘significant other’, James is my ‘other significant other’. John is *the* significant other, James is second after him.
The Polyamorous Home glossary uses ‘other’ as a descriptive signifier. There are two significant others, neither more important than the other. In short this definition, like the book itself, tries its best not to exclude. The Polyamorous Home actively balances out Jess’ inevitable personal bias and broadens its applicability by including experiences other than her own; from the sensitivity edit by intersectional expert Michon Neal, and the use of the word ‘polyam’ as opposed to poly (indicative of the awareness of a current discussion regarding the cultural appropriation of the term from the indigenous peoples of Polynesia) to the chapter on solo-polyamorous living written in consultation with others, and a detailed analysis of where individual vs. community living may spark conflict. It’s this last item which I have personally taken away as a new layer of understanding to apply to my own experience.
On the underlying assumption that polyamory cannot function well if individual needs are not met and sustained in some way, this often translates into ‘protecting and respecting the rights and needs of ourselves and each other as individuals before anything else.’ As a mother I have often had difficulty verbalizing my own point of view which demands that such an individualistic perspective be modified. The needs of my children don’t always come first and I do respect others’ needs as well as practising self-care, but my children and their needs are always at the forefront of my mind. Their wellbeing must be supported and–as far as I am concerned–the wellbeing of my polyamorous community is in many respects geared towards supporting them. Several of my past issues have involved conflict between newcomers–who understandably prioritized their own needs–and what I saw as the needs of the community, home and household I hold dear. But my children are not their children and I cannot expect everyone to think as I do.
‘When putting the community first you create a symbiotic relationship. You give up some of your right to self-determination, and the community becomes responsible for you and your needs.’ – The Polyamorous Home
So I would add, not only ‘my and my needs’…. but also the needs of my children. But in our individual focused western society, many folk may be legitimately confused as to what sacrifice might be desirable or necessary in order to ensure the harmonious functioning of community-style household. Certainly polyamorous literature rarely mentions foregoing any self-determination in order to accommodate community living. Countless Facebook group responses advise leaving the home and/or partners if boundaries are crossed. But what if you feel that leaving simply isn’t an option? What if boundaries clash because of a conflict of two valid and sometimes non-negotiable belief systems?
In a polyamorous household especially those with children, there must be a disproportionate number of families which include individuals who may understandably be less invested in creating a well functioning community than say, the biological parents. In those situations and for other communities comprising differing beliefs (including religion) Jess Mahler’s discussion framework–using concepts of hard boundaries and soft boundaries from the kink world–comes in handy. There is nothing wrong with partners who choose not give up their own self-determination in order to support a community they have played no part in making. But if newcomers consistently choose to prioritize their needs above the best interest for the community or other individuals in that community, then it may be necessary to rethink the extent of the integration of two or more conflicting ideologies. Living together may not be the best thing for either the individuals or the household as a whole.
Other anecdotal seeds of wisdom in The Polyamorous Home also might as well have been drawn from my own stories–the conflict which occurs when someone thoughtlessly cooks something intended for that evening’s meal for example, has deeper indications of two differing mindsets and an unexpressed, perhaps not even formulated expectations of intimacy or requirements of privacy.
Whilst Jess’ personal conviction against hierarchical polyamory is clear (and less aligned with my own thoughts around the difficulties of the universal applicability of egalitarian polyamory) I wholeheartedly admire the conscious thought that has gone into this publication. A couple of formatting errors are easily forgiven since this book is a labour of love and a product of hard-won personal experience. All in all, I believe this book should be required reading as part of polyamory 101.