Where Elitism Undermines the Ethos of Polyamory

Couples who venture into non-monogamy may not be wholly prepared for the amount of vilification that they will get from the friends, peers and family. But they certainly won’t be prepared for the amount of vitriol often spewed at them from more practised poly folk. Because those who can already, have little patience for those who cannot yet. Why?

When a couple first tries to venture into polyamory, they’ll often get a lot of eyerolls and heavy sighs from experienced poly people. It can be a bit disconcerting; you’ve thought about it carefully, after all, and you really want to try this non-monogamy thing…why is everyone giving you such a hard time?

The answer is that no matter how carefully you’ve thought about it, you will likely carry some ideas and expectations that privilege your existing relationship, often in the guise of “protecting” it…and a lot of us poly folks have been hurt by well-intentioned people unconsciously exercising privilege to the detriment of others, without even intending to.

Polyamory: So What Is Couple Privilege, Anyway?

Privilege is by definition invisible unless you have already started unravelling society norms regarding gender, monogamy and race, religious values and most of the stuff our society and your parents taught you (who were probably unaware of their own privilege). But because privilege is so insidious, almost all newcomers to polyamory will exercise it in some form or another… and may even deny its existence because the truth is so uncomfortable to hear. After all, no one wants to admit they have been causing anyone harm, unconscious or otherwise.

In reality, the new polyamorous and the practised polyamorous, are divided by a river of tacit and explicit knowledge. The [really] practised polyamorists, specifically those thought leaders in the field have vast self-awareness and finely tuned relationship skills. Yes, they have knowledge; much of which they are eager to pass on through eloquent and penetrating books and blogs. It’s a field where such literature is much needed and fortunately growing.

But the animosity of those who can towards those who haven’t yet succeeded, cannot be solely explained away by the ‘well intentioned’ but unconciously exercised privilege. The animosity is generated by judgement on what those new polyamorous SHOULD be doing versus what they are ‘perceived’ to do (which is to plunge in head first without properly thinking through the harmful effects on others).

Those in the know say that new polyamorous should be ‘poly-ready’ – they should be already have done the work necessary to be secure, self actualized and therefore readily able to distinguish an internal fear (for which they should take responsibility) or an external threat from which they can legitimately protect themselves. And – it is said – that the way to do this is through educating themselves throroughly and properly. If the new polyamorous do not do this, the judgement is that they are selfish and harmful. Better to refrain from ‘loving more’ until you know for sure you won’t harm the more you are loving – even if it requires sacrifice of your own needs. Amen.

But there’s a problem with this. Reality.

  • The Nature of Knowledge

Books and blogs contain information rather than knowledge. A book can structure a learning process or knowledge acquisition process but it is only a tool. If a book is read by two people each would gain different tacit knowledge from the process. The difference in knowledge gained depends on existing experience of each reader. The understanding gained from the content of the book will depend the existing understanding and contextual knowledge of each reader.

It’s therefore impossible to transfer tacit relationship skills and knowledge through a medium like a blog. No matter how much reading, processing and discussion you go through it will be not enough to undo the knee jerk reactions that a lifetime’s conditioning may have on prospective partners or indeed build the self-awareness necessary to provide a third eye on the situation.

People acquire knowledge through practice and experience. It is shaped by the things you do. As a result, routine and repetition are a source of learning.

And how do you practise relationships? By having them with real people.

And how do you know you’re self actualized and secure and not acting from a place of privilege? You cannot. At least not wholly. Because whilst education in the theory is needed as a prerequisite, without the pain and joy of experience – true self-awareness is impossible.

Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.

Mahatma Gandhi

  • The Instinct of Survival & Self-preservation

But before I go any further, let’s categorically state for the record. I work on checking and using privilege for good; but let’s also be honest, It is also the product of self-preservation – something which has made man into a consummate survivor. And it’s the ‘how-to’ eradicate it generally outlined, basically involves throwing out the ‘training wheels’, something which challenges the very instinct which protects us.

‘Training wheels’ is an analogy that is most often used to refer to the rules which shift the risk onto the new partners, when getting involved with an existing couple. The infamous ‘veto’ rule used as an instrument of emotional tyranny, the territoriality (don’t sleep with her in my bed, take her to ‘our’ restaurant, kiss her on the lips – yes really) and the ill-conceived notions of a ‘unicorn’, you-must-love-us-exactly-the-same-quantity, eradicating jealousy (it doesn’t).

But learning how to ride a bike – or practise polyamory – is tricky. There are ways of learning without training wheels of course, but learning without them (usually) causes a substantial amount of pain. Since one of our key survival mechanisms is to avoid our own pain and pursue our own pleasure, the ‘throwing out the training wheels’ has a slim chance of adoption. Here’s a tactic which rather than simply throwing them away, better addresses everyone’s needs.

When deciding whether risk in a polyamorous network should be redistributed, and how to do it, I think it’s useful to think in terms of marching order. Who’s the most resilient, the most experienced, the bravest, the strongest? Who’s uniquely vulnerable—perhaps as a result of a mental or physical illness, or economic dependence or other hardship? Does the marching order make sense based on need and ability? Does everyone involved understand why their position is what it is, and do they all agree to it? Is it renegotiable when needs or circumstances change? Is there a plan in place to help the weaker members of the party grow in strength, courage and ability, preparing them to eventually walk side-by-side with the other party members?

Typically when we discuss arrangements that shift risk in polyamorous relationships, we don’t do this. Typically it’s assumed that it’s the couple who will protect their relationship, and the new partner who will bear the associated extra risk.

Eve Rickert, co-author of forthcoming book More Than Two

However whilst the passage above offers a solution, all too often the polarizing position taken by poly-activists regarding couple privilege lends itself to criticism from a different perspective.

  • How we move towards Awareness

What is the pattern of growth from immaturity to maturity? From denial to integrity? At what point does a person become responsible for their actions, aware and an ‘adult’? The truth is this; immaturity and maturity are not two binary states, nor can you cross a threshold and become mature in one fell swoop. Growth can occur through revolution of course but is generally separated by long periods of evolution. The happiest relationships (be they monogamous or polyamorous) are characterised by a high(er) state of integrity. But like all states, it is fluid – we can think we are living with integrity only to discover pockets of denial elsewhere.

The majority of people (in any type of relationship) live in a state where they do not have any solutions to problems, they only have criticisms for the problems themselves. It is a victim/persecutor state which is disempowering and disrespectful to themselves and others. It is a state characterised by lying (to yourself and others), jealousy, superiority and revenge. Thus it is also characterized by a very prevalent phenomenon in polyamory (and indeed life) which goes as follows –

I have the right answers and my job is to make them see how right I am and how wrong they are. If they will only play by my rules, everything will work out just fine.

Transforming #1, Ron Smothermon

Which could be translated into couple privilege at work,

If only our ‘secondary’ can play by the rules I need to feel secure, then our triad will work perfectly

Or even polyamory elitism,

If only I can educate the new polyamorous about the dangers of couple privilege and eradicate it, then practised polyamorous need not be hurt again.

There are no ‘right’ rules for living life because to get to a more healthy state of integrity, one must give up being ‘right’ about rules. You must move out of the realm of opposition. Because by positioning ‘couple privilege’ as something to blame for the hurt experienced by practised polyamorists, the thought-leaders are simply demonstrating the flip side to the victim/persecutor paradigm.

And I believe that this type of ‘education-by-opposition’ is flawed; not by intent (since the intent is to eradicate privilege which in itself is a worthy goal), but by inherent design.

Put bluntly it is those who demonstrate love and compassion for others going through the process of losing structural archaic rules to move into a place of expansive love, who will have the most success in furthering the cause. But Aesop said it better when he said… there is great power in strength, but even greater power in gentleness.

I believe we can use them both.

An ethical disclosure

It will come as no surprise that my perspective on the above comes about because my experience shows that truly temporary and reasonable measures which can be agreed by all with a view to being eventually eradicated, have helped me and my partners move to a place of trust in my open relationships (to be more precise my safety measure was to preserve the haven of my bedroom for a period of months before releasing possession around it – god that felt good!).

But there is always a necessary amount of self-interest in blogging since I would not be writing this, nor would it even have occurred to me to question it, had I not experienced it myself. And I have compassion for myself. But the compassion I have for myself is not to the exclusion of others… because there is no scarcity in my compassion, just as there is no scarcity in love.

Thanks go once more to the body of work from the More Than Two team which continues to inspire my thoughts. All opinions expressed are my own.

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