Little Miss Shy …Goes Online Dating part 3

Welcome to part 3 of my existential musings about relationships and the ways we ‘meet and mate’ nowadays. For the backstory, read part 1 and part 2. To jolt your memory, here’s where I left off:

But if I didn’t want marriage or monogamous partnership, what other choices did I have? What was there in the multifarious, shady world between casual sex and marriage?

Mr Men

The double standard

One of the things I appreciate about poly and RA are that they provide the opportunity, in theory, for the needs of both women and men to be met. It’s been argued that polyamory’s most radical contribution is that it gives women full access to non-monogamy.

Blogger Pepomint raises the issue of the double standard that still exists for men and women when it comes to sexuality. “…men are supposed to originate sex, and sex is supposed to happen to women; men are supposed to enjoy sex, there seems to be less concern around whether women enjoy it…” Freaksexual July 2007

Laura Smith supports the argument that polyamory has woman-friendly roots. She quotes Libby Copeland: “Free love rejected the tyranny of conventional marriage, and particularly how it limited women’s lives to child-bearing, household drudgery, legal powerlessness, and, often enough, loveless sex.” Smith writes of women in poly relationships, “acting on desire as essential to liberating oneself from male sovereignty.” Polyamory, she argues, is about “remaking one’s own little corner of the world”. Polyamorous Women Aren’t Just ‘Pleasing Their Man’ – It’s A Choice The Guardian 19 April 2016

Carrie Jenkins has another important point to make – “…women who violate the monogamy norm, whose sexuality is out of (someone’s) control, are a threat to an ancient feeling of entitlement over women’s sexuality and reproductive potential.”

Prejudices about sexuality relating to gender, to equal rights to pleasure, and to sexuality and aging abound. Why should a woman forego pleasure in sex simply because a man regards it as irrelevant and unnecessary to his ‘primary’ orgasm? Why shouldn’t adults of any age seek and enjoy sexual pleasure? What is inherently wrong with the idea of multiple sexual or romantic partners? If people are sensible and take care of their sexual health, how is it anyone else’s business? Why is a quest for understanding, acceptance, joy and human connection any less valid because it is not driven by a romanticised notion of the One True Love? Suzannah Weiss 12 Reasons Why There’s Orgasm Inequity (And No, It’s Not That Women Are “Harder to Please”) Everyday Feminism December 2015

Personally, I’ve had it with the One True Love myth – I want something different!

As products of the societies in which they flourish, polyamory and RA are not necessarily egalitarian, but what interested me most about discovering non-monogamy in my forties was the idea that I could create my own tailor-made rules for living my life in a way that I could never have done in my twenties.

Apart from my ignorance about polyamory then, I doubt that I’d have found any willing partners. Even now I have struggled with men’s set ideas about how a woman should behave and what is acceptable for her to aim for – the old double standard raising its ugly head. It’s acceptable to be searching for ‘the one’ or a conventional relationship, and it’s sort of okay to just want casual sex and one-night-stands. When you mention poly to a potential mate who’s never heard of it however, it’s a challenge to keep them interested, unless it’s NSA sex they’re after.

Some men can see the appeal or the idealism behind poly; they can see it applying to themselves, but they often can’t abide the idea of their partner/loved one being romantically or sexually involved with another man. Even in poly circles there is such thing as ‘the one penis policy’! And so we come in a neat circle back to the problematic issue of jealousy.

Back to the green-eyed monster

We can’t just discount it as immature or irrelevant; it’s real and intense and complex for most people, even poly people, and it’s not surprising then that a lot has been written about jealousy within the poly context. According to Veaux, jealousy is just a feeling that we’ve created because of our own insecurity.

Jealousy is most common when somebody feels insecure, mistreated, threatened, or vulnerable in a relationship… Jealousy is not the problem; jealousy is the SYMPTOM of the problem. Address the insecurity or the things underlying the feelings of vulnerability, and you address the jealousy. So the trick to making a poly relationship work is to make everyone involved feel secure, valued, and loved,” he says.

Phew, he makes it sound so easy but we all know that this takes time, energy, commitment, maturity and a host of other adult capabilities. And I’m not being flippant here – jealousy can be valid and it certainly can’t be ignored.

Lola Phoenix says, though, that not everything that goes wrong in a polyamorous relationship is about jealousy. The Hierarchy Polyamorous People Don’t Talk Enough About Medium 24 April 2017

“Beginner reading on non-monogamy over-hypes jealousy to the point where people go into non-monogamy assuming any negative feeling they have about a person their partner is dating is inherently jealousy and any attempt to express that feeling is automatically controlling, abusive behaviour.”

Veaux also says that things aren’t clear-cut when you’re dealing with emotional risk.

“Fears and insecurities are very, very clever at protecting and justifying themselves, and separating something that is actually harmful from something that’s merely uncomfortable isn’t always easy. It requires work. It requires examining, with an unflinching eye, what it is you’re afraid of and what it is you think will happen if your partner continues doing the thing that makes you jealous. And above all, it requires that you ask yourself, on a regular basis, what is the point of all this?

The point of all this

For me, the ‘point of all this’ is to redefine what I want in this second half of my life.
Do I (eventually) want a live-in partner, for example? Do I want just the one partner, but separate houses? Or do I want to genuinely find a non-monogamous arrangement tailored purely to the people involved?

I know I want intimacy and friendship – but it doesn’t always need to be tied to sex.

During my first year spent online dating I tested the idea of ethical non-monogamy. In applying ‘polo solo’ and the broad principles of RA as my guiding value, I preferred to keep my relationships separate and to remain autonomous. Since then, over the next couple of years, I’ve shifted, returned, challenged and experimented about whether I can live a happy non-monogamous life in the long term.

Re-thinking relationships

There is no doubt that relationships are complex, and poly or RA as a life choice has got to be right up there as the king and queen of complications.

Laura Smith, again: “Open marriage has its challenges, as does monogamous marriage, as do all relationships. De Beauvoir did cry in cafes; she was sometimes miserable. Poly advocate Ken Haslam said that polyamory can be ‘poly-agony’… But in much polyamory criticism there is an unwillingness to allow for complicated female desires, a self-serving wish to shove narratives into neater packaging.” Polyamorous Women Aren’t Just ‘Pleasing Their Man’ – It’s A Choice The Guardian 19 April 2016

No one is going to shove my narrative into neat packaging that’s for sure!

My own experiences of finding and developing a deep, long-term poly relationship was not without its challenges. Over more than two years Oscar and I tested our connection step by step, and for the most part, we were able to manage sharing each other. It was important for us both to have freedom to explore other experiences, each in our different ways. One complication that certainly affected me is the almost 20-year age difference between us.

During that time I thought a lot about how we all need to feel valued and special. Sometimes in longer-term relationships, we feel taken for granted, unseen, unappreciated. I adore Veaux’s quote that security comes from knowing that you, and everyone who is important to you, is unique and therefore irreplaceable.

When you see each partner for exactly who they are, he says, “you see that each person is someone who adds value to your life – value that any other person can’t.”  ‘Polyamory, Monogamy and Ownership Paradigms’ Franklin Veaux’s Journal 11 Feb 2013

And so, despite the challenges, poly solo or RA is still what I want for this time in my life. Maybe not forever, but for now. I’m still an idealist, for better or for worse.

We’re all familiar by now with the strategy of not ‘putting all your eggs in the one basket’. Sometimes, people choose to be monogamous once they know their feelings; others choose it immediately. Others hedge their bets by ‘simmering’ or ‘icing’. Right now I’m attracted to alternatives to traditional roles and relationships. I might not ever find a perfect fit, but I’ll enjoy the journey.

Having said that, I don’t want to fall into the trap of making value judgements for the wrong reasons. As Lola Phoenix writes, “A lot of beginner non-monogamy writing is made with rose tinted eye implants, practically. Non-monogamy has a way of defying some of the things that are inherent but not exclusive to monogamy. Sometimes it can be freeing to feel like you can flirt without ‘cheating’ or do what you’d like. And that in turn makes people feel like non-monogamy is inherently better, inherently more egalitarian, inherently more socially progressive than monogamy. It can get to the point where non-monogamous people refer to monogamy derisively, almost blaming it instead of structures like misogyny and heterosexism for the way monogamy has kept them in a box.” 13 things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy Medium, 22 October 2016

You might well be after your One True Love – or you may be after a decent relationship with a good person who fits your shape as you spoon each other to sleep. Or you might be intrigued, as I was, by non-monogamous alternatives and what they could offer instead of traditional pairing.

Whatever your choice, I wish you well.

Oh, and here’s how Little Miss Shy Goes Online Dating ends:

MrMen 2


Little Miss Shy …Goes Online Dating part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my existential musings about relationships and the ways we ‘meet and mate’ nowadays. For the backstory, read part 1. To jolt your memory, here’s where I left off:

But if I didn’t want marriage or monogamous partnership, what other choices did I have? What was there in the multifarious, shady world between casual sex and marriage?

Mr Men

Polyamory – poly what?

Polyamory is much more widely known now, but a couple of years ago it wasn’t, at least in my social circles and life experience. Until Week 2 of chatting on dating sites, I remained ignorant of the term, when I stumbled across a captivating young guy on OK Cupid.

It’s not that he was ‘good looking’; it’s that he was unusual and proud of it. Andrew’s profile announced his ‘poly’ status right from the get-go and his photo enthralled me. He was wearing funky sunglasses and black lipstick, a nerdy guy dressed in a pink tutu in a crowded festival setting. I fired off a jaunty message and not long afterwards he replied. Fantasy Mind loved the idea of developing a friendship with someone so openly rebellious, which felt like a breath of fresh air from my defiant past.

And so began my introduction to polyamory – ‘poly’ or ‘polyam’ for short. If you think you already know about poly, bear with me – it’s not all about the ‘hipsters’ and fucking around, although in certain circles there can be a very high level of promiscuity. The way I see it, behind polyamory there’s a genuine notion of questioning the status quo – and I’m all for that.

Let’s look at what it’s not: It’s not religious; it’s not polygamy; it’s not sexist or favouring men or women (poly can be adopted by any adult); it’s not ‘swinging’ and certainly it’s not just having casual sex with whoever takes your fancy.

According to the ‘bible’ of poly, Morethantwo, polyamory is:

“…the fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals, viewed as an alternative to monogamy, especially in regard to matters of sexual fidelity; the custom or practice of engaging in multiple sexual relationships with the knowledge and consent of all partners concerned.”

You might not know that the fabulous French early feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, spent a lifelong polyamorous relationship with philosopher John Paul Sartre that she termed “the one undoubted success in my life”.

The Guardian writer, Laura Smith says that, “in terms of longevity, they had about half of us beat: their relationship, which allowed for affairs while they remained essential partners, lasted 51 years until Sartre’s death in 1980.”

Emer O’Toole, also in The Guardian, adds to the list of what poly is not, “It isn’t a disregard for the agreements you share with people you love. And it certainly isn’t positioning monogamous people as more blindly traditional or less emotionally evolved than you.”

Boy, did I have a lot of questions for Andrew. My mind was buzzing with excitement.

Ethical non-monogamy – is there such a thing?

Andrew was 30 at the time, and had been living as a bisexual poly guy for a decade. It wasn’t something he’d decided on lightly and it certainly wasn’t an easy path. During our first two-hour meeting under a shady canopy in my city’s public gardens, I politely drilled him for information.

I was fascinated by poly and its potential as a viable alternative to monogamy. Andrew patiently explained the basics and directed me to some very useful reading (The Ethical Slut is a great starter). Although he’d had short periods of monogamy, Andrew identified most strongly with poly. His deepest emotional relationships were with women but supplemented by those with men. He had a long-term female partner of two years, as well as regular male and female ‘playmates’. Andrew felt it was important to be open about poly, even in his workplaces.

This brings me to the common topic of jealousy. Yes, invariably people raise it, and yes, dealing with it takes a lot of time and energy. The problems of and solutions to jealousy were, I discovered, a good way to think about poly.

Taking care of everyone’s feelings and being open, fair and inclusive was complex; mind-bogglingly difficult for a lot of people to comprehend.

As I listened to Andrew recounting his previous decade of countless romantic experiences with both women and men, older and younger than he, I marveled at his maturity, ethics and empathy.

In fact to me, poly almost seemed beyond the grasp of your average emotionally ravaged, insecure, volatile human.

Andrew described to me a common insecurity – being left out – that lonely feeling when your lovers are all busy with their other lovers but you’re sitting home alone nursing a hot chocolate in front of the TV. There is no easy fix; poly takes guts and honesty to make it work. It’s about freedom and giving people you care about respect.

But is it for me?

I started to think deeply about poly, given my new lease on life after marriage and questioning of all things ‘relationship’. I began to wonder whether I could do this poly thing and make it work for me.

Around me, all over the western world people were starting to feel the same way. A 2016 study in the US revealed that 21% of adults had been in an open relationship, and over in the UK, a 2015 survey revealed that 48% of British men and 30% of women were interested in one. (Michael Baggs, Does anyone believe in monogamy or should we have open relationships? BBC Newsbeat 17 Feb 2017) Apparently at least 5% of Americans are now involved in polyamorous relationships.

Ongoing discussions with Andrew were fuelled by my years of pent-up qualms and frustrations. My mind was buzzing with ‘what if’s. But poly, he admitted, was certainly not for everyone.

Peak interest in poly seems to be late 20s-early 30s although when I joined a couple of poly Facebook groups in my city, I saw that a handful of people in their 40s and 50s also identified as poly. It was a depressingly small ‘community’ in my small city. There were several of couples looking for a third, poly solos and people with established ‘polycules’ (or harems).

I discovered terms like unicorn hunting, traid and hinge. I learned a lot about the politics of polyamory, but best of all, I stumbled upon RA – relationship anarchy. The key axiom for RA is that ‘love is abundant and every relationship is unique’.

RA questions the idea that love is a limited resource that can only be real if restricted to a couple.

People who follow RA do not rank and compare people and relationships. They consider each relationship to be independent, between autonomous individuals. Then and now, I relate to all of these statements! I have come to view RA as the relationship philosophy that best aligns with my conscience and my desires.

The myth of love’s scarcity or finite nature is something we are raised to believe in our (Western) society. I think of this as a miserly approach to love and certainly I can’t imagine anyone saying to a parent of multiple children, “how could you possibly love more than one?”

We take it for granted that, as mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, we have enough love to go around, that we can love more than one child or friend at a time, that the human heart has an infinite capacity for love.

Can we take non-monogamous relationships seriously?

So why, then, do some people question the authenticity of non-monogamous relationships? Why is a poly relationship considered not quite ‘real’ or ‘serious’?

Carrie Jenkins argues that non-monogamy isn’t considered ‘romantic’ – “what gets called ‘romantic’ isn’t just about classification, it’s about marking out those relationships and lives we value most.”

Author of Morethantwo, Franklin Veaux, challenges the notion that ‘if you love someone, you shouldn’t want anyone else’.

“Many people believe that a person who has multiple loves can’t give their ‘whole heart’ to any person. The belief goes that if you love one person, you can express your love wholeheartedly, but if you love multiple people, your love is divided up and is therefore not as deep… Don’t think of the contents of your heart the way you think of the contents of your wallet; it doesn’t work like that.”

Learning about poly and RA finally gave me the vocabulary and ideas to challenge all those notions and judgements that had filtered down to me for decades.

It was everywhere I looked; the value-judgement that monogamy was the only way to live, the only system under which a relationship could be conducted.

Esther Perel writes at length about monogamy and relationships, and she offers boundless wise counsel. She says so succinctly of conventional monogamy that it’s this very model of love and sex that’s behind the exponential rise of infidelity and divorce. (More on this topic coming soon!)

“We ask one person to give us what an entire community once provided – and we live twice as long. It’s a tall order for a party of two.”

Elf Lyons in The Guardian/Observer says that “polyamory is the most empowering way of loving that I have encountered. It gives women more autonomy than other relationship models ever have… I believe that it could be the huge relationship revolution that the feminist movement needs.” Elf Lyons, A New Way to Love: In Praise of Polyamory, 23 July 2017

Autonomy is good – yes? And boundless opportunities to love and be loved? But is life really like that, I wonder. In Part 3 of this series, I will raise the uncomfortable topic of ‘the double standard’. (Oh, and I’ll reveal how that wonderful little book Little Miss Shy Goes Online Dating ends!)