Relationships and reading

Some weeks ago, I went to a holiday party at the house of some people my family knows. The hosts are a husband and wife who got married pretty recently (for the purpose of this post I will call them R and E). Before that, my family had attended some game nights hosted by him, out of some circumstances with which I knew that he was then polyamorous. (But did not know, going to the party, if that was still the case).

He greeted us at the door; when we came into the living room (we were pretty much the first people there) we saw a woman who I then assumed was E. However, pretty soon after that another woman came into the room and it turned out that in fact she was E, and the first woman was thus clearly not (I will call her J). I asked J if she lived there too; she said she did not. I subsequently (including while watching E and J interact) started wondering if they were metamours. This turned out to indeed be the case.


Later at the party, I overheard a different person telling a story about how she and her girlfriend went on a roadtrip and got repeatedly taken for sisters, despite the fact that they don’t look alike. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that kind of story.


Together, this made me think about reading relationships working out as this combination of getting impressions on some level, and then interpreting them with what you have in your mind.

On some level I got impressions about J not feeling like another guest, and my brain went to other options I might have associated with what I was getting. Since I did have polyamory and etc in my head to work with, I could think of that one. If I hadn’t, I can see myself having wondered if they were, say, sisters-in-law, or other extended family.

Similarly, some of the people the other couple encountered might have been on some level getting the impression of ‘something other than friends’ – and then again, going to other options they have available in mind as associated.*

*To be clear, the reason what-people-have-in-minds works this way is heteronormativity etc and this is bad. This is me having thoughts about its existence, not saying it’s ok.


Special Cases?: Differing Philosophies on Non-Monogamy

So, some amount of time ago, I was reading one of those ‘rules for non-monogamy’ lists (unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find this particular one again), and one of the points listed was ‘have an exit strategy’. This point was talking about having a plan to end any of your non bounds-primary relationships, to use in the case where your bounds-primary decides that they can’t handle you having that relationship anymore. And, this being one of those times when seeing someone for whom something works differently than it does for me makes me realize the existence of these multiple possibilities, this led me to some thoughts.

In the set of ideas on relationships that is prevalent in our culture at the moment, relationship partners do not have the right to control most elements of each other’s lives. If I don’t like one of my partner’s friends, or if they don’t like one of my hobbies, we can try to discuss this with each other. We can express worries or concerns. We can decide how and whether to address the other’s concerns. If this is a serious enough dislike, we can end up parting over it. But, unless there’s a serious effect on our lives together (my partner’s friend is stealing from us, or I’m neglecting important household responsibilities to engage in my hobby), we do not have the right to expect that because we don’t like this about the other, the other needs to put an end to it.

Sex, similar intimacy, and relationships are the major exception to this. They are a special case. In mainstream ideas, I’m expected to want my partner to not have these things outside of me, they’re expected to want the same of me, and it is accepted that we should abide by each other’s wants in this.

Some kinds of non-monogamy keep these as special case, while having a different idea of what the people involved might want. In this non-monogamy, each partner does not put a blanket veto on the other partner’s outside sex, similar intimacy, and relationships. However, they still have the right to more specific vetoes – ‘don’t go to this restaurant’, ‘don’t do this specific sex act’, ‘all other partners must be approved by me’, etc.

On the other hand, some kinds of non-monogamy do not. In this kind of non-monogamy, I have no more right to tell a partner they can’t date or play with someone else than I do to tell them they can’t play chess with someone else. I can express concerns and expect them to be addressed in some way, and not dismissed. I can share feelings I’m having and we can work through them together. I can, if there’s a situation we cannot come to a mutually acceptable place on, decide to end the relationship. But I do not expect that my desires on my partner’s other sex and relationships should take precedence over theirs, just like I do not expect this for other parts of our lives.

[Note: While I at least currently think that type two is the kind that works best for me, none of this is a value judgment of any kind. Different things work for different people, and as long as there is open communication, consent, etc, whatever works for whoever is totally fine.]


So, I’m reading some polyamory writings, including a bunch of definitions, which led me to a thought on the multiple things that people mean when they use the word ‘primary’ for a partner. Here are three that I’ve encountered (note that they are not mutually exclusive, and a lot of people use ‘primary’ to mean more than one of them at the same time):

  • Some people use ‘primary’ to mean what I use ‘significant-other relationship’ for. So, a centrally important intimate relationship wherein all the partners have such feelings and have agreed that they have such a relationship status.
  • Some people, for instance here, use ‘primary’ to mean ‘building a life together’ and such. I would probably use ‘life partners’ for this.
  • Some people use ‘primary’ to mean people with whom you set rules about each other’s other relationships. I don’t have another word for this, but I think it would be good to have one, because it’s a very particular thing that it’s important to be able to talk about. Until I get a better word, I’m going to be using the term ‘bounds-primary’.

Personally, I don’t use the word primary much myself. If someone asked me if I had a primary/ies, I would say yes, meaning my significant others. I think being life partners with someone, for me, would necessarily also mean being significant others with them. And I don’t have a third-type primary/bounds-primary at all, and don’t really forsee having one, because I have a different relationship philosophy from the one that concept is part of.

Mono, Poly, Etc: a Spectrum

So, I’m currently visiting my best friend (who is also now getting added to the ‘people I am out to’ list), and we were talking about relationships, and this ended up giving me the thought that ‘monongamy’ is another word that actually has multiple meanings. So I ended up thinking of this spectrum. It’s probably missing things, and has other such problems, but it helped me think through this particular thing, and having it out there might also help me think of the other things.

[Note that it is also in no way a value judgment. Different things work for different people, and as long as there is open communication, consent, etc, whatever works for whoever is totally fine.]

  • Absolute monogamy: a person has one significant-other relationship in their entire life. They only have sex and similar intimacy with this person, they and this person build their life together, etc. They and this person dedicate their lives to each other, and that’s it. (Some religious fundamentalists will advocate this one.)
  • Serial monogamy: a person has only one significant-other relationship at a time. While in such a relationship, they only have sex and similar intimacy with this person, they and this person build their life together. However, such a relationship can end, and if it does, the resulting single people may form another such relationship with someone else.
    (Note: this option actually spans a whole part of the spectrum, relating to what an ‘OK ending’ is. So, the most restrictive is ‘if one of the people dies’, and from there it basically goes through the same spectrum as divorce laws, from ‘if one person does something accepted as sufficiently terrible’ to ‘if the people/one of the people just want it to end, for any reason whatsoever’.)
  • Relationships are monogamous: If a person has a significant-other relationship, they only have one at a time, and while in such a relationship, they only have sex and similar intimacy with this person, they and this person build their life together. However, if a person is not in a significant-other relationship, they can have non-significant-other relationships with multiple people, and have sex and similar intimacy with these multiple people. (This is where the ‘we are getting serious, let’s be exclusive’ trope comes from).
  • Open relationships: A person has one significant-other relationship at a time, and they and this person build their life together. However, they can also have other non-significant-other relationships at the same time, and have sex and similar intimacy in all of these relationships.
  • Polyamory: A person can have multiple separate significant-other relationships at the same time.

Additionally, there’s a perpendicular axis for polyfidelitous relationships – moving along that axis, the word ‘monogamy’ in each point is replaced by ‘polyfidelity’, and a significant-other relationship functions the same way as noted in whichever point it fits under, but includes multiple people.