Polyamory is a form of consensual non-monogamy in which people have multiple lovers, and are honest with each other about doing so. In May 2010, I wrote a post called “Am I Evolving Away From Monogamy?” in which I talked about my urge towards polyamory, and my confusion about that urge. I talked about my previous dislike for polyamory, and I talked about how new it is for me to feel like I want to be polyamorous. I talked quite a lot, really, but a week later, I started feeling like I hadn’t covered everything … or like I just wasn’t correct about some things I’d written.
But how could I be incorrect? I was, after all, writing about myself and my own feeings. How could I be wrong about what I myself was thinking?
I guess I realized quickly that I’d claimed things about my past self that weren’t quite true. That didn’t acknowledge my own complexity. For example, I wrote that although I’ve toyed with polyamory in the past, my most recent poly leanings came up only because I got my heart broken by a gentleman who I sometimes refer to as Mr. Inferno. I theorized that perhaps I’m just scared of commitment. While it is certainly true that I’m not big on commitment these days, I later recalled that actually — at the beginning of my relationship with Mr. Inferno, I had some doubts about being monogamous. I was monogamous because he was very sure that was what he wanted, but I remember a point when I thought about trying to negotiate something different.
Polyamorous people are stereotyped as being commitment-phobic. I know all about that stereotype — in fact, I have angrily defended my poly friends from it for years! (Even when I was very fiercely monogamous, I got so mad when people who don’t know anything about polyamory said ignorant things about my poly friends!) Yet I have to watch out for that stereotype’s influence on me anyway. When I forgot that I’d considered polyamory with Mr. Inferno, was I being influenced by that stereotype? Or was I just missing Mr. Inferno a lot that day, and wishing I could talk to him, and maybe therefore remembering him as more influential in my life than he actually was? Or … what?
I’m visiting my father right now; we went out to dinner the other night and talked about relationships. I’m quite open about my parents about almost everything — we don’t talk explicitly about our sex lives, but we do have detailed conversations about stuff like polyamory. My dad is not at all attracted to polyamory, and we used to commiserate and theorize about how we just didn’t understand polyamory.
Now that I’ve decided to pursue poly, my dad is puzzled. “I know this is weird,” I said to him during dinner, “because we used to be on the exact same wavelength about this,” and he nodded. He asks questions, he tries to figure out where I’m coming from — and they’re all questions that I have decent theoretical answers for. Answers include: “Well, of course it’s possible to love more than one person at a time. Mothers can love multiple children, kids can love multiple parents, friends can love each other, so why wouldn’t it be possible for people to have sexual and emotional relationships with multiple people?” Or: “Jealousy can be managed just fine, as long as partners are communicating well and genuinely care about each others’ feelings.”
In fact, some of my answers are the same theoretical answers that he and I discussed back when we were both steadfastly monogamous. Except this time, I’m giving him those answers from the other side; and yet he can’t relate any better to them, this time around.
I have always spent a very large amount of time obsessively analyzing my own emotions, and often writing about them. This has been true since childhood. However, one analytical skill I can always improve is this: knowing when to say, “I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
Another important skill is staying on top of the stories I tell about myself, the ideas and memes and images and narratives that I’m trying to match myself to. It seems impossible to track all the influences on my psyche, all the different social and cultural and even biological forces. Where am I under all the programming? It’s worth trying to figure it out (even if I’ll never know for sure).
I don’t always know what I’m thinking. I don’t believe that anyone always knows what they’re thinking. It’s important to acknowledge this, because when people don’t acknowledge it, they often simply decide to be something that doesn’t quite match up with what they want. Sometimes this works fine — if the pattern a person chooses to impose on her self can function, then who cares if it’s a perfect match? (I mean, arguably, people are always imposing unmatched patterns on our thoughts and selves.) But although this sometimes works fine, there are plenty of times when it doesn’t work fine. Or really at all.
I have a section in my sexual communication workshop for maxims — little slogan-like things. I recently added a new one that I really like: “You don’t always know what you’re thinking.”
I’ve been practicing BDSM for a while, now, and it has been amazing. I’ve had a lot of very intense sexual experiences and I feel incredibly confident about my sexuality. I feel very far away from my younger self, who realized that she was into BDSM and completely freaked out. However, I used to keep a very detailed (albeit sporadic) personal journal, and this allows me to look into the head of 20-year-old Clarisse. Here’s something I wrote only a couple of weeks after I met Richard, my first serious BDSM partner:
On the surface I have a hard time understanding why this has shocked me so much — the fact that I wanted him to hurt me, the fact that even as I was facing down my demons and crying and incoherent I wanted him to keep biting me, scratching me, bruising me, and God, it was bad, but even now I wish it had been far worse … on some level I want to have been physically scarred. He stopped finally because I started saying “no,” and couldn’t formulate a coherent answer through my tears when he asked me if I was serious. But, of course, although I was serious, I also didn’t want him to stop. Of course. Of course I wanted him to hear me saying no and keep going, to be protesting and overridden. And the reason I couldn’t formulate a coherent answer wasn’t even that I didn’t know the answer was, “Yes, keep going.” It was that I knew the answer was yes, and when I faced it I started crying so hard I couldn’t speak, and he … sensitively, I guess … decided it was time to stop.
How cliché I am. (God, I’m sounding like some naïve ingenue from a random de Sade play or something, just discovering my sexuality or whatever.) How self-conscious. And how humiliated and ashamed. Of all the things I think I expected from myself for this, if it ever came true that this was what I wanted — I never really actually expected to be ashamed.
What I think is especially interesting about those paragraphs is that I felt a certain recognition for my BDSM identity, I felt a certain inevitability about learning what I needed. It made sense to me. “Of course,” I wrote, over and over. And at the same time I acknowledged that I had considered BDSM before — but that I hadn’t really known what that meant, and I’d had no idea how I would feel if I found it. I knew what I was thinking, I knew what I had been thinking, and yet at the same time I didn’t know. I had no idea. I was completely confused.
I’m not so confused anymore. These days …. There are a lot of things I don’t know, but there are an awful lot of things I do know, too. I have gotten pretty good at knowing what I want, even when it’s hard to figure it out. And I have a very good sense of my boundaries.
But I also keep trying to figure out how to expand them. This isn’t just true with BDSM. Arguably, my urge to go to Africa and put myself through extreme culture shock was similar to the urge I feel to expand my head with BDSM. Some of the things I want to do with my life and my body and my self seem almost opaque; totally irrational; a little scary — even to me. I love experiencing and analyzing emotions; experiencing and analyzing personal connections — I want to do more of that, even when there are emotional risks. What’s past that emotion? What’s under my heart? How much can I feel for another person, and in what ways can I manage that? Which part of my mind will catch me if I end up going over the edge? Will anything?
And so, even though I have a good sense of my boundaries, I also occasionally have the sense that anything could happen.
This is not always dramatic. Sometimes it is quite tame, like with my current polyamorous leanings. When I was at dinner with my father, he gently expressed concern about how being polyamorous might affect me emotionally. He wasn’t trying to tell me what to do — just that he’s having trouble understanding where I’m at. “For me,” he said, “sexual relationships encourage emotional attachment,” and talked about how he bonds with one person at a time. He added, “I simply find that if my relationship is truly satisfying, I don’t want more than one; I can’t convince myself to be interested in more than one partner.”
I used to feel the same way. Dad knows it, and I know it; we’ve said these things before. It’s not like I don’t understand how he feels — I totally do.
And there’s no guarantee that, over the course of experimenting with polyamory, I won’t bond with a partner in a way that feels monogamous — and then get hurt if they won’t be monogamous with me. I’m not convinced that I’ll feel completely secure as I continue to pursue polyamory. Recently I had one difficult morning that featured two simultaneous breakups, and that was a bit much to deal with! In short, I’m not certain that polyamory is my ideal. But I’m also no longer certain that it’s not. And I’m really enjoying trying it out.
Here’s the thing: I’m not sure what I’m thinking … but that’s okay. I know I could end up getting hurt … and that’s okay. I could get my heart broken: that’s what you risk when you experiment with the alchemy of your own emotions, your hormones, your body, your self. But I’m watching myself and being careful and communicating as clearly as I possibly can, and it seems to be going fine. And if poly really doesn’t work out for me, I can go back to monogamy.
And hey, at least if I do get my heart broken, it’s something else to analyze obsessively and then write about! That’s something to look forward to.