Poly Stories

Post Triad Contemplation

By Cascade Spring Cook

Based on an interview with Doreen (who is in relationship with Lance & Sheila)
(These are pseudonyms)
(My comments are italics)

Sometimes people manage to stay together in spite of the problems theyíve faced, and other times people find that itís preferable to move on when a triad ceases to function well together. This can occasionally be done with love and caring, as Doreen, a 30 year old law student, is doing with Lance and Sheila as she works through her divorce from Lance. Even though their expectations have been scaled way back, and she no longer has sexual contact with either of them, Doreen feels that they will continue to be family for each other.

Lesbian or bi identified

Before Doreen met Lance, she identified as a lesbian who was occasionally slept with men. She really liked him and felt a good connection with him. As they grew closer, she says,

ďI felt like the universe was giving me a test, that I could either accept this incredible human being into my life as a partner, which felt right, or I could dismiss him on the basis of his gender, and I didnít want to be so narrow as to dismiss someone on the basis of their gender. Thatís why I had been queer-identified in the first place, so as not to limit the kinds of incredible connections I could share with other people.Ē

She told him upfront that she was bi, and couldnít commit to being only with him because she was attracted to women and wasnít willing to agree to forgo relationships with other women. So it was her identification as queer that led to polyamory.

Doreen is more attracted to women than to men, but has more experience with men. She thinks that part of this is because of fear within the lesbian community. Sheís found a lot of prejudice towards her bisexuality among lesbian women, and thinks that the lesbian identified women sheís been with are much more threatened by her bisexual identity than the men sheís been with.

Ups and downs with Sheila

Doreen and Lance started by dating other women together, and had three or four girlfriends together, often old friends or former lovers of hers. However, taking part in a study of polyamory prompted more discussion about how they wanted to do polyamory. They decided to date separately. Shortly after that Lance and Sheila met, and became very enamored of each other. This was very hard for Doreen. She felt incredibly threatened. She was terrified by what it meant and what she perceived she was losing Ė this was the first time she hadnít also been involved with the other woman. She worked on her jealousy, and at about the time she was feeling better about it, she and Sheila also became sexually involved. That worked for about a year, but Sheila broke off the relationship with Doreen after that, just saying she couldnít do it anymore, without being willing to say any more.

There was a lot of arguing and fighting after that. Sheila eventually moved out, and Lance would alternate nights at the two different homes. After six or eight months, Doreen and Sheila took a trip together, and worked out their conflicts, and Sheila moved back in with them, so the three of them lived together as a Vee. The two women were very close, like sisters.

There were still issues and conflicts. At one point Sheila had an unprotected sexual encounter while she was at Burning Man. This precipitated a lot of turmoil. Doreen now realizes that her reaction to that was very controlling. She regrets how much she tried to control the emotional connection between Lance and Sheila. She tried to make sure that Lance spent at least 50 percent of his time with her. Lance and Sheila didnít even get to have a weekend trip together for the first two years after they met. At the same time, Doreen remembers acting as a mediator for the other two, helping them work out issues between them. Now she expresses love for both of them and she hopes that Lance and Sheila will have the time and energy together to have a closer relationship.

Breakup

The three way relationship started coming unglued when both Doreen and Sheila started getting involved with other people at the same time. Lance had never had to deal with either of them having another lover, and had a hard time with it, feeling threatened and jealous. The woman that Sheila was seeing was strongly anti-male, and Lance wanted to get some support from Doreen. However Doreen was becoming involved with another man, and didnít have the time and energy to give to Lance. Lance told her she was neglecting her studies for her new lover, which she agrees was in some respects true, but thinks that the deeper problem was that Lance wasnít getting what he needed. She recognizes that she set up the situation for Lance to feel neglected by giving him a lot of attention for a long time, and then cutting it off rather abruptly, saying she just didnít want to do that anymore. Her sense at the time was that he had had the benefit of two partners for several years, so he should have been more evolved, and ready to deal with their having other partners. Itís not uncommon for people to have difficulties when their partners start dating others, even when theyíre quite comfortable with more than one partner for themselves. Itís best to recognize that this is a different type of challenge, and also that an existing relationship needs to have time and energy devoted to it.

Now Doreen realizes that it must have been very challenging for Lance to deal with two women who were jealous and insecure and having a hard time with the three way relationship, and she appreciates the patience that he had with them when they were dealing with jealousy. She acknowledges that neither she nor Sheila had the same patience or compassion with Lance. She was both distracted by the excitement of her new relationship, which was allowing her to explore BDSM more than she could with Lance, and also tired of playing Mom to Lance and Sheila, and trying to help them resolve their difficulties.

Another factor in the breakup is that Doreen is very ready to move to another state when she finishes school. She wants to feel free to pursue her professional career and move wherever she needs to, but Lance is not ready to move.

How to do polyamory?

The changes in her life have put Doreen in a contemplative place. Sheís once again pondering what polyamory is and how to approach it. Currently she doesnít think that ďcouplehoodĒ and polyamory mix well for her Ė she has been too strongly socialized into what being a couple means, so that itís a struggle to deal with the socialized and cultural ideas about owning your partnerís affection and being entitled to attention. She recognizes that she imposed a lot of cultural norms about what it means to be in a couple. It was very challenging for her to include polyamorous relationships into this mix. For example, she found herself having expectations about emotional fidelity, primacy and attention Ė she felt like she owned Lance and his affections, even though intellectually she didnít believe that and didnít want to feel that way. So she is now exploring polyamory in a fresh way. She still thinks itís possible for her to be polyamorous and to be committed to someone who is committed to someone else, just that the dynamics would be very different if the polyamory comes before the couple forms. In that case the default social dynamics of being a couple donít have a chance to solidify. Thatís one approach to avoid falling into the trap of societal expectations of what a marriage or serious relationship should look like.

While Doreen was with Lance, she identified herself as a polyamorist, and was quick to mention that to other people. Now that sheís single, she finds that sheís more hesitant to say that. Sheís not a monogamist, but, she says,

ďI want to take my relationship style deliberatively and slowly and build connections with people over time, and try not to label it as much. I definitely havenít given up on it, but right now Iím really appreciating and enjoying celibacy and abstinence, which isnít something I had ever experienced since I became sexually active as an adolescent.Ē

Defining how she wants to do relationships in an affirmative way is important to Doreen. When she describes herself as a polyamorist, she finds people make assumptions about what that means, often negative ones, and then she finds herself in a defensive mode, telling them sheís not like that Ė not a swinger, not a polygamistÖ

For the first time in her life, Doreen is making decisions based on what she wants, rather than for the people that sheís with. She feels like sheís learning how to be poly all over again, especially when it concerns what information she, as a single person, needs to tell someone sheís dating about others. She knows she will be open about it, but she is learning how to do that as a single woman. Itís different than when she had to make it clear that she was part of a couple, since when people are just dating they donít tend to talk about other relationships.

Aftermath of Mormon upbringing

Having been raised as a Mormon, in a Mormon part of the country, Doreen finds that in spite of her rebellion against patriarchal thinking, itís still hard to get away from it. The type of pressure she had to overcome was exemplified by the Sunday school teacher who told her that her intelligence was Godís test for her. Would she be willing to give up her education and career in order to be a mother in Zion? Doreen felt they were very wrong to say such things, and the patriarchal system grated on her severely. She considers herself a strong feminist, yet she acknowledges her fatherís influence in some major decisions, such as postponing leaving the Mormon church. He didnít want her to leave while she was very angry with Mormonism and the church, and she agreed to wait. Given that she likes to think of herself as very independent, she thinks itís ironic that she let the timing of that decision be dictated by her father, the main patriarchal influence in her life.

Doreenís ambivalence really comes out when she talks about Mormon polygyny. After her experience with polyamory, she finds herself a lot more tolerant of different perspectives and practices, and actually finds herself defending polygamy to people. Not defending the child abuse or incest or brainwashing, but their choice to be in polygamous marriages because thatís what they believe in. She says she used to be very critical of polygamy because ďI felt it was coercive and manipulative and patriarchal and abusive, and in many cases it is. But itís those aspects that Iím now critical of, instead of a nonmonogamous plural lifestyle.Ē

This is still something she struggles with, however. Doreen remembers that she was programmed and brainwashed as she was growing up, so itís hard for her to figure out ďwhere does agency [having the power to make oneís own choices] begin when one is raised in a closed culture with social norms that are so embedded from a very, very young age?Ē She is very wary of religious conditioning and how it affects people, and very critical of patriarchy in mainstream Mormonism, to say nothing of the fundamentalist Mormon groups. But she also finds it offensive that people presume that they have a better idea of what is best for others in certain subgroups than the members of that group themselves. However, she also knows how coercive those subgroups can be, and how much pressure there can be to get people to stay in them and not make choices separately from the group. These are issues she grapples with a lot, since she doesnít have a clear answer.

Because of where they live, she and Lance and Sheila were sometimes assumed to be polygamous rather than polyamorous. While she and Sheila were lovers, they used to joke about being sister-wives, but Doreen didnít find that very funny any more once they broke up and it was more similar to a polygamous situation.

Doreen is clear about the differences between polygamy and polyamory. People are in polyamory by choice; itís not forced on them by the culture theyíre in. Polyamory doesnít have the religious motivation. ďWe arenít doing this because we believe God told us to, or that itís the correct way to live, but because for us itís the relationship style thatís most fulfilling, and weíre open to that being a fluid thing.Ē She and Lance and Sheila werenít polyfidelitous; their relationship was open to others, even though they didnít have any other involvements for a while. She says she also invoked her queerness in explaining polyamory: she wanted to be involved with both men and women. However Doreen also notes that the men she knows who were raised Mormon and who now call themselves polyamorous are frequently involved in a polygynous type of situation, where the man has several female partners but the women donít have other male partners. Sometimes the men feel entitled to have more than one partner, but chafe at the idea of their female partners doing the same. She thinks this comes from a life of patriarchal privilege.

Polyamory in practice

Because she would bring both Lance and Sheila to functions, people would ask her about the relationships. She found a way to talk about it without giving too much information:

ďWhen people ask, I say, ĎWell, Iím in a polyamorous family. What that means to me is responsible non-monogamy. Iím happy to tell you as much as you want to know, but I donít want to give you more information than you want.í I open it like that, and invite people to ask me questions. And a lot of people do, and I find that very rewarding, being able to articulate so they know that Iím not ashamed.Ē

Doreen and Lance started with a lot of rules about how to practice polyamory. Many people find rules very helpful in reducing jealousy and other problems as they explore polyamory. Itís also common for rules to be relaxed as time goes on, and the existing partners become more comfortable with how things are working, or find the rules too difficult to abide by. Other times they become more stringent, when one person find s/he has a harder time than expected. One of Doreen and Lanceís rules was that they wouldnít kiss someone without talking with the other first. If they really liked someone, they were supposed to talk with each other before doing anything about it. However, in practice those rules didnít work. One time while they were having a party, she found out about her husband kissing somebody else (Sheila) in the basement, and Doreen really lost it. It was very upsetting to her. But when rules got broken it helped them see what was and was not realistic, and they finally decided that the only ground rule was that they had to talk about things. ďIf itís hard to say, you need to say it. And I know that thatís kind of a tired refrain within the poly community. Communicate, communicate, communicate. But it was really so true.Ē Their communication skills grew tremendously during the four years they were a family, and continue to grow as they are separating. She feels closer to Sheila now than when they were all living together, partly because they are no longer fighting, and partly because they are no longer blaming each other for stresses that Lance is facing.

Growth from polyamory

Doreen thinks that it would have been helpful for her to have a stronger sense of self as she went into polyamory, and to know how much work on herself she would have to do. However, it has supported her personal growth. She has no regrets about getting into polyamory, and sees herself as more accepting and compassionate. She feels more accountable. The three of them have talked about how,

ďWhen thereís more than one other person thatís calling you on your shit, youíre a lot more likely to listen. When thereís one other person saying, ĎYou know, you do this and you do that, and I react this way when you do this,í I think itís easier to dismiss that. But when thereís more than one person giving you feedback, in a close intimate emotional way, about patterns and emotional behavior, we found that we took it more seriously and looked more critically at our own patterns and behavior, and made more strident efforts to work on our issues, our baggage.Ē

Because of the growth sheís had, she considers the challenges sheís dealt with in polyamory to be blessings. Still, having more role models would have helped, elders who could have given them support and helped them along the path.

Doreen is eloquent about the benefits she has experienced in polyamory:

ďFor me, in my experience, the benefits of polyamory have centered around the extreme expansion of my capacity to love, not only for other people but for myself. Tolerance and acceptance of myself, my own emotional process and work. Including the parts of myself I donít like. Loving more than one person, being loved by more than one person, has reflected to me my own beauty and my own uniqueness. The gifts that I have to give to other people and to myself have been more clearly reflected in these multiple mirrors that come from different perspectives. Both the positive feedback as well as the criticisms have prompted more self-growth, more compassion for other people. Iím a better listener. Iím a much better communicator. Some of the rigidity with which I saw the world has relaxed quite a bit and I find myself much more tolerant for very, very diverse viewpoints, perspectives and practices.Ē

Commitment

Some people think that polyamory is devoid of commitment, but Doreen thinks thatís ridiculous. In her experience, itís all about commitment. It takes a lot of commitment to try to reconcile the ideals and the practice, and to deal with the doubts of potential partners. Contrary to the expectations of some people that the person in the middle of the Vee has it made, itís very challenging, no matter which position you are in, when you are negotiating a polyamorous relationship. Itís definitely possible to have a commitment to several people, but itís a choice that requires a lot of self-analysis and willingness to work on oneself. Commitment, as she sees it, means ďdedicated attention to growth, to being present, to challenging oneís world view and paradigm and practice, and being willing to look in the mirror and be accountable,Ē and to look at her own crap.

Thereís a song by David Rovics which has a verse she especially likes, in which a woman talks about her love for her three children. No one ever says that sheís bad for loving them all the same. In the same way, itís possible to have more than one lover, and itís beautiful to love more than one person.

Jealousy

Doreen is a strong supporter of personal therapy with a poly friendly therapist. One of her big issues was jealousy. She found that eradicating jealousy wasnít realistic, but she could work on managing it and on figuring out where it came from. Dealing with jealousy was difficult, but rewarding:

ďIn the beginning jealousy would feel so overwhelming, like I just couldnít handle it, I couldnít stand how I felt, and I just would do anything to make it stop. Just being with that, sitting with that intense emotion of feeling left out, of feeling left behind, of feeling not good enough, of feeling less than, being with that and not pushing it away, did so much to kind of simmer down that emotion. And it became not so overwhelming, to the point where I could be with it enough to sort of dig into what was underlying it. For me thatís been a huge blessing in terms of my own growth, in figuring myself out, and unpacking some of the baggage of my childhood and self-confidence issues and self-esteem issues, so in many ways I kind of welcome the jealousy, as strange as that may sound, because itís been a great tool.Ē

Sheís learned the jealousy doesnít have to control her emotional life, that itís part of the spectrum of emotions that she feels, but not the dominant one. She can also feel happy, she can feel compersion, she can feel a lot of different things.

In spite of her anger at Sheila for her behavior at Burning Man, she did not want Lance and Sheila to break up.

ďI really hoped that they could work it out, because I wanted Sheila to continue to be a part of my family. I really, really care for her and learn a lot from her, because sheís so very different than I am, and sheís not the kind of person that I would ever have chosen to be in my close circle of friends, and certainly not my family, and so in the beginning when I was frustrated, Iíd say, I never would have chosen this person, but because of that very fact Iíve learned more from her than I have from probably any other kind of friendship that Iíve ever had in my life, and so I wanted them to work out, I wanted them to continue to love each other, and Iíve really experienced a lot of joy in seeing that.Ē

New Relationship Energy was a double-edged sword. When Sheila was exploring a new relationship, it felt like it took away energy from their friendship and sisterhood, as well as from mundane tasks, but at the same time it brought energy into the house and the excitement reinvigorated the joy of the house. Also, ďItís kind of hard to be too angry for too long at someone elseís excitement.Ē

Kids

While Doreen has not had kids, she knows several who are growing up in poly families. Her impression is that the kids are fairly well adjusted and attached to a variety of adults. She says they seem a lot more self-confident about their own ideas and opinions about the world than she and other people she knows were at that age, but she doesnít know whether thatís because of the polyamory or the schools they are going to. She mentioned one child in particular, a well-adjusted child whose parents were in a long term Vee (of one man and two women). The boy said he felt sorry for his classmates who didnít have the additional parent figure because it was really wonderful to have two mothers.

© 2009 by Elaine Cook

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