Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at www.polymeansmany.com . This month, our topic is “Relationship Significance”.
When my (now) husband and I first started out as poly, we kept our dating and partners private, not wanting to cause the bedlam of coming out to our friends and families until we knew this was a long term thing for us. As it happened, we both met someone we cared very deeply about quite early on, and as our wedding day grew closer and closer, we realised that we wanted our loves to be recognised for who they were to us, and not hidden as friends. We decided to come out as poly to our families, and although it hasn’t been an easy road to take, I am glad we did. Our girlfriend K was recognised at our wedding as our girlfriend, she sat next to me at the wedding feast, and one of my favourite wedding photos is of my husband, myself and our girlfriend, together.
It was really important to us that she was recognised as being who she was to us, and that we didn’t insult her by asking her to pretend we were only friends, and that we didn’t insult ourselves by lying to save other people’s feelings. My mother was vehemently against the idea of having K in our wedding photos, saying she was someone we wouldn’t have anything to do with in ten years time, but I told her this was irrelevant. It’s true that just three years on our relationships are radically different now to how they were then, but I wouldn’t change a thing. For the rest of my life I’ll have those treasured memories of her being there on our wedding day. I’ll show my kids the wedding photos of the three of us on the day, and be so glad that I insisted she was recognised as our partner. I’ll be proud that in the face of adversity, I was resolute that people would respect her as our partner, and not pretend she was anything else.
Having my relationships recognised as being significant by friends and family has been a mixed battle. Some people have been wonderfully accepting, almost oblivious to the fact that having four partners is unusual. Others have been cautiously nice about it; not really knowing what to say without causing offence, but having good intentions. Then there’s the people who just hate the idea, like my father who point blank refused to meet any of my partners due to their ‘transience’. I’ve always gone with the philosophy of being firm but consistent in terms of approaching acceptance of my polyamorous lifestyle, but sometimes your patience (and perseverance) can wear thin when your mother perpetually (and purposefully) asking after your girlfriend using the wrong name. On the whole my life now is happily full of people who accept and recognise my partners for who and what they are: people I love and who mean a lot to me, but it hasn’t always been that way.
The other side of this of course, is being in a relationship that is universally known, and accepted as being significant by your partner’s social circle. I’ve dated a fair number of people who weren’t out about poly, and so our relationship was a secret, and that became an issue. I’ve written before about being in relationships that have lacked recognition or belonging, and how painful it has been to feel excluded or dispensable. I’ve been in relationships where I felt like I was just a plaything to someone, or that I was unimportant to the person and invisible to their friends or family. I’ve dated single poly folks, and been dumped the instant a primary relationship was started. I’ve been told the views of my love’s family or friends who say that as a married woman, I can never offer the ride of the relationship escalator, and so not only is our relationship pointless, that I’m selfishly preventing them from finding a life partner for themselves.
So how do we deal with these issues without riding (or pretending to ride) the relationship escalator? I think the solutions are split between making your relationships feel significant to the people involved in them, and to the perceived significance of your relationship(s) by other people. In the first instance, the first things are the day to day issues: ask your partner for their preferences on things like amount of contact, regularity of dates, involvement in vanilla life or decision-making, anniversaries and that kind of thing. As someone reading this blog I hope I don’t have to state the obvious about how to make someone (and your relationship) feel appreciated and significant generally. In the bigger picture of relationship significance, the primary issue has to be what the people involved count as significance, and if they want it from this relationship. Is it anniversary cards? Fluid bonding sex? Having Sunday lunch with your parents? Co-habiting? Being introduced to your social circle? Collaring? Hand-fasting? Children? Start with a discussion about what your honey would feel made the relationship significant, and go from there. Once you’ve identified what are the qualities of significance according to your partner, you need to see if that works with your own set up, current relationships and desires. If you already co-habit with someone, could you co-habit with another? Are some things even possible? It’s really easy to fall into the trap of attempting to mimic the escalator to make a relationship feel significant, and takes a lot of introspection and self-awareness to know what you really want versus what society tells us we should want.
In terms of the perceived significance of a relationship, this can be a trickier issue depending on if someone is out as poly or not. Some situations can be dealt with over time and with persistence and tact, others are immovable and it’s best to know where you stand before you get heavily involved and have to break something off for a lack of significance. If you’re dating someone not out as poly to friends and family, you have to decide early on if that’s something you can deal with. Could you deal with being with your love at a social event and having to pretend you’re ‘just friends’? Being introduced as ‘my friend’ and not ‘my partner’? Can you deal with being on the periphery, and potentially never being able to be included properly in the family and feeling somewhat invisible? Is recognition of your relationship important to you, or not? Depending on your relationship structure or dynamic, this may or may not be an issue for you, but it’s something to consider.
If the people involved are out as poly it is easier in some respects; people can know who and what you are, but that doesn’t automatically mean the significance of your relationship is respected or recognised. If you’re a partner to someone with an established primary partner, it can be extremely difficult to get people on both sides to accept you as a significant person: friends and family of the established couple might see you as a ‘bit on the side’ and your own friends and family might see your affair with a ‘taken’ person as being good for nothing but heartbreak. It can take a hell of a lot of patience and persistence to overcome those prejudices, consistently and firmly correcting false assumptions and snide remarks, engineering low-key social events where all parties get to meet face to face (because it’s harder for people to be an asshole to someone to their face) and repeatedly explaining how important this person or relationship is to you.
The issue of relationship significance is really important to happy, long term connections of all kinds. It requires honesty from all the people involved to say what they’d like from this relationship and how you feel recognised as someone important to your love. When you have relationships outside of the normal relationship pattern, it follows that your means of importance and significance may fall outside of the norm too, but as long as it works for you, then that’s all that matters. If the Batarang your boyfriend got you means more to you than any diamond ring from him ever would, then go with it! Similarly if the fact your boyfriend lies about who you are to his workmates bothers you, don’t accept what makes you unhappy: talk about it, and if it can’t be changed, figure out if you want to stay or leave that relationship. Having your relationships perceived as significant by others can be harder, but whilst we don’t have the right to force our friends and family to approve of our relationship choices, we can expect them to respect and recognise the people most important to us, whether they like who they are or not. It can take time and effort to get that, but it’s worth striving for, and is something I continue to do for my own relationships.