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Some thoughts on pets and polyamory

My parents have two pets: a high-strung hunting dog (a German shorthair pointer, if you're curious), and a psychotic cat with no claws who originally belonged to my sister. The dog is exuberantly, enthusiastically erratic, ninety pounds of jumping, barking, tearing around the house, freaking-out-without-warning teeth and claws that has actually injured my mother badly enough to require surgery on a morning walk. ("Oh look! A squirrel! I'm going to go chase it, oh boy oh boy!" led in very short order to a torn rotator cuff, when the dog hit the end of her leash.) The cat doesn't much cotton to people, or to anything else really, and will growl, hiss, and generally make her displeasure known when one of us naked hairy apes intrudes into her presence.

This is actually a post about polyamory. I'll get to that in a bit.

The dog doesn't much like the cat, and the cat doesn't much like the dog. Actually, that's not quite accurate. It's probably more fair to say that the dog, being carefully bred for the purpose of hunting, rather does like the cat, in much the same way she likes any prey animal, and the cat hates the dog with a fury that is scarcely comprehensible to mere humans, but it's a fury that is as impotent as it is malevolent. There's no contest between the two. If the dog were actually to get at the cat, the dog would kill the cat in very short order--game over, the end--exactly as the dog has been bred to do.

For this reason, my parents carefully segregate the dog and the cat. The cat lives in one side of the house; the dog lives in the other, and doors are closed between them.

It would only take one mistake, one accidental slip-up, for my parents to own not two pets, but one pet and one collection of bloody scraps. So they are religious about keeping the animals separated. Doors and windows are checked after every passage (the cat's domain includes the screened-in porch, which the dog is not permitted in). The habit of closing the door after every passage has become so strong that every door in the house is generally kept closed.

In some ways, this mirrors their relationship. My father lives on one side of the house; my mother lives on the other. They interact seldom and actually spend time together more rarely still. Even on vacations, they tend to go in separate directions.

A very large part of the poly community seems predicated on the same model as my parents use with their pets.

For many people, polyamory in practice seems a bit like owning a dog and a cat that don't much get along, or in some cases might even try to kill one another. Each relationship functions as a separate entity, and doors are shut between them. If Alice is dating Bob, and Alice wants to date Bill too, and Bob and Bill don't much care for one another, the solution is scheduling. Keep Bob and Bill away from one another, and it's all good.

After all, Bob and Bill aren't involved with each other, right? There's no reason that Bob and Bill have to force a friendship, or even interact with one another at all, just because they're both dating Alice, right?

Well, right. Certainly no reasonable person would suggest that Bob and Bill should try to be something that they're not, or should attempt to force a connection or a friendship where none exists. that way disfunction lies.

But that misses the point.

Presumably, Alice has a choice. One would, generally speaking, probably assume that Alice can choose who she becomes romantically linked to. Alice can choose to date Bob and to date Bill, if she likes...but she can also choose not to.

I may be getting cynical in my old age, but it does seem to me that many people in the poly community approach their relationships from a desperate, starvation model. Connections are so rare, and the number of people who would actually want to date me so few, the reasoning seems to go, that if Bob asks me out, I have to say yes! If I don't, I may never get another chance to start a new relationship again. Best to take every opportunity that comes down the pike; best not to risk never having a new relationship ever again.

And sure, it can work, in much the way my parent's lives work--you learn to cope, you develop the reflex of shutting doors, you learn to police yourself constantly and to keep the things in your lives segregated. The habit of openness can be quashed, in time; you learn not to share things with Bill about Bob, you learn not to schedule things where Bob and Bill might interact. You develop a subconscious internal policeman, whose job it is to maintain that separation, to ensure that Bob and Bill forever occupy different spaces in your life.

But what the fuck kind of life is that?

It's not necessary to try to make Bob and Bill like each other. Nor is it even possible, really. But what Alice can do is make choices. She is not obligated to date anyone who will have her; indeed, most people would argue that dating anyone who will have you is likely a symptom of a pathology.

What she can do is choose the kind of life she wants. She can, if she doesn't want to become a devout follower of the Church of Closed Doors, evaluate as part of the decisions she makes what impact a potential new mate will have on her existing mates. She can say "I like Bob; I enjoy Bob's company; but I don't want to spend the rest of my life closing doors and policing my partners, so if Bob doesn't fit well in my life, I will make another choice. I can develop a friendship with Bob that honors and respects the connection between us, without being involved in a relationship with him. I can choose relationships with people who complement my life and each other's...even if they're not actually involved in romantic relationships with each other. I can build a life without doors and walls."

There are disadvantages to this approach. One may, from time to time, have to pass up the opportunity to sleep with someone one wants to sleep with. One may not be able to pursue every opportunity that presents itself. But in a world of six billion people, we have to make choices anyway; and love is abundant. There is no need to date whoever will have you.

The benefit to a life without doors and walls seems opaque to some people I've spoken with. I can't rightly comprehend that, because it seems obvious to me. It means less headache and less hassle. It means less worrying, less policing one's thoughts and deeds. I am very fortunate to have found in Shelly, and in my other sweeties, people who understand this intuitively. And I am fortunate in that there are certain things I do not have to worry about. I never have to worry about Shelly's other partners; I can trust implicitly that when she chooses to open herself to other partners, she will make those choices in ways that consider my needs as well.

The benefits are wonderful. She has chosen other partners who have become friends of mine as well--people who add value to my life, even though I am not romantically or sexually linked to them. Relationships like this--relationships chosen to complement one another, not be separated from one another--are not zero-sum. Everyone benefits; when she chooses another partner, my life is enriched by it as well, and vice versa.

Happy birthday, Shelly. :)



( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 6th, 2006 08:46 pm (UTC)

I never understood the "I want nothing to do with your other parters" or "how could you date them"

I would think that there is a good chance that if I like someone the person(s) that I love will like them to. hell most of my friends like each other as varried as they are. You would think that a lot of the things that make you want to be with someone out of choice rather than desperation would make them like each other.

A while back I made the choice to no longer be involved in poly relationships were I was kept apart from people. You dont want to have to date me but we do have to have some closeness. This has ment I gave things up but thats the way life is.

And Happy Birthday Shelly
Oct. 6th, 2006 09:43 pm (UTC)
Yay! I feel the same way, too!
Oct. 6th, 2006 09:57 pm (UTC)

very well said, as usual.
Oct. 6th, 2006 10:13 pm (UTC)
Sometimes those choices are just so _hard_
But thank you for writing this. I don't often say much, but I do read most everything, and I wanted you to know that I needed to hear this, especially at this point in my life. Thank you again.

And even though I don't know you, happy birthday Shelly. I wish you the best of the best.
Oct. 6th, 2006 10:18 pm (UTC)
I've experienced the opposite end of the closed-door spectrum - a life of no boundaries. It sounds wonderful - unless you're someone who has them and you're interacting with someone who doesn't. Everyone gets lumped into the same orgy even if they just came to say hi. Of course, in this instance you also have the choice of leaving the party even though you're attached to the host.

I'm of the school of 'not everyone needs to know every detail about every thing', and having someone's entire familial, sexual, and friend network dumped in front of me for me to admire and join is intimidating. Here, drink the kool-aid.
Oct. 7th, 2006 05:50 am (UTC)
Uhm, then that sort of person would not be a good fit for you? I think poly or not, that sort of person would not be a good fit for you. I know, you're showing the extreme, but on the other hand, my significant partners, friends, kids, activities are significant.... parts of my life. For me to have to not say _anything_ about what's going on with them, or to avoid for example, one person running into another with me at some event, is just a burden. I'd assume some portion of my friends and lovers share common interests, and we might well run into each other places.

That doesn't mean that there can't be a middle ground - but yeah, I'd like people in my life to be able to be in the same room as each other and not have it be uncomfortable. No orgy necessary though ;)

People aren't dogs and cats, we can't actually keep them neatly in 1/2 of the house as easily as the situation that is used as the example in this story.
Oct. 7th, 2006 08:56 pm (UTC)
I've experienced the opposite end of the closed-door spectrum - a life of no boundaries. It sounds wonderful - unless you're someone who has them and you're interacting with someone who doesn't. Everyone gets lumped into the same orgy even if they just came to say hi.

Hmm. I'm not entirely sure I understand what you're saying here. It seems to me--and correct me if I'm wrong--that you've known people who take an apprach that says "if you get along with me, then I'll sleep with you."

If so, that's not at all similar to what I am saying. "In order to be part of my family, you must get along well with my other partners" does not imply "if you get along well with my partners, then you're part of my family."

I'm of the school of 'not everyone needs to know every detail about every thing', and having someone's entire familial, sexual, and friend network dumped in front of me for me to admire and join is intimidating. Here, drink the kool-aid.

Well, not everyone needs to know everything--but that's a far cry from saying people should at least get along.

And far from seeing it as having a potential partner's familial or sexual network dumped in front of me, i see the opportunity in being introduced to a potential partner's social circle to making new friends and meeting people who can enrich my life. If you start from the premise that your partner is "dumping" people on you, then it seems you may end up starting from a place of resentment; if you see in your partner's social circle opportunity, not obligation, then it changes your outlook.

Oct. 7th, 2006 12:23 am (UTC)
That was the longest, mooshy-between-the-lines, roundabout matter-of-fact, objective analogy, cryptically sweet, publicly open....

...love letter I have ever read.

Despite the deadpan delivery, it made me gush for youse guys. Well done!

p.s. happy b-day Shelly. Always fine, is 29.
Oct. 7th, 2006 01:47 am (UTC)
GAS Alert
I have seen sporn harnesses work well on pointers who pull. They also seem to me to be less dispiriting and risky for the neck than halti-collars. My sympathies to your mother, I have injured a shoulder the same way.

Oh, and I agree with the rest of your post. My new poly situation is like this and it's so much easier for all concerned.
Oct. 7th, 2006 02:59 am (UTC)
But if you date only people who get along with each other, there's the chance that you'll miss out on dating a really, really nice person who might not get along with one or more of your other partners. Why cut them out of your dating circuit, just because there's a clash? Shouldn't you evaluate each potential partnership on its own merits, rather than on how well this particular person fits into an already-existing circle? Or are you suggesting that one of the merits of a potential partnership must be "must play well with others"?

(I believe I understand your point; I'm just trying to clarify a bit of it for my own purposes.)
Oct. 7th, 2006 09:01 pm (UTC)
But if you date only people who get along with each other, there's the chance that you'll miss out on dating a really, really nice person who might not get along with one or more of your other partners.

Yes. And in so doing, I also miss out on any potential conflicts, rivalries, resource competition, and so on that may accompany that.

There are many really, really nice people in the world. I do not have time, inclination, or desire to date all of them. If a person does not get along with my existing partners, there's likely to be a reason they don't get along; and there's a more than middling chance that that reason may indicate some deeper incompatibility.

But regardless, the world is full of really, really nice people, and it's not important that I date 'em all. In fact, I'm not particularly interested in dating all of them. A person can be part of my life, and we can add reciprocal value to one another's lives, without romance or sex.

Shouldn't you evaluate each potential partnership on its own merits, rather than on how well this particular person fits into an already-existing circle?

Like everyone, my life is not a vacuum, and the relationships I make don't exist in a vacuum. In a sense, we all, every day, evaluate potential partnerships on how well they fit into our ives--the merits on which we judge ptential relationships are only relevant in the context of our lives!

A person who is going to be an ongoing part of my life should add value, not drama; should create opportunity, not constrict it; and should fit practically as well as emotionally and philosophically into my life. I see my partners as family, not dating partners.

And yes, "plays well with others" is one criterion that I think is important. :)
Oct. 7th, 2006 11:49 am (UTC)
That's one thing I'm very pleased about in my poly-life: my husband and boyfriend get along fabulously. It helps that they're both gamers and geeks and swordfighters, and bonded over that very quickly.
Oct. 7th, 2006 06:34 pm (UTC)
I don't know... I can see not having active antipathy being a good thing, but I've always been one of those wo has very diverse friend groups, and frequently, one group of friends just. doesn't. get along. with the others. I don't see that as a failing, it's just a sign of the fact that I have the ability to get along with a wide range of people. I wouldn't be inclined to drop one set of friends for another -- I'd just make it clear that I have to have time to spend with all of them. It doesn't seem like such a stretch to expect my romantic relationships to work in the same way.

Now if one parter is talking shit about another partner, then we've got a problem. But I don't quite see how a few closed doors are necessarily a bad thing.
Oct. 7th, 2006 09:05 pm (UTC)
Now if one parter is talking shit about another partner, then we've got a problem. But I don't quite see how a few closed doors are necessarily a bad thing.

That might depend on the way you see your partners. Do you see your partners as dating partners, or do you see them as family? Does it make a difference?
Oct. 9th, 2006 04:40 pm (UTC)
... maybe I'm weird for having family members who don't talk to each other about certain things? But no, that doesnt' make much of a difference in my scenario.
Oct. 12th, 2006 03:23 am (UTC)
.. maybe I'm weird for having family members who don't talk to each other about certain things?

Weird? I dunno. Different from me, certainly. I (and my partners) don't feel comfortable with the idea of family members who don't talk to each other about certain things; I know that for me, the ability to speak openly and honestly about anything, without fear and without having to conceal or avoid certain topics, is extremely important. If I did not have that with someone who was a aprt of my family, it'd drive me absolutely batty. I don't like having to tiptoe around certain subjects, nor conceal anything that might potentially be a problem--I'm a firm believer in getting everything out in the open, and Shelly is even more that way than I am.

It does seem to me that many people compartmentalize parts of their lives, and agree simply not to talk about them. Often, when I see people doing that, it seems to me that some tacit self-deception is happening--people pretend something is OK when really, if everyone were being honest, it's not. I can't live that way.
Oct. 7th, 2006 08:44 pm (UTC)
I had never quite thought about it like that... but yeah... I can't disagree with your analagy... Though sometimes I can see how it might be difficult to deliberately choose people for their compatibility with each other. Presumably, however, if they fit better into your already working life and your lovers all enjoy each other's company life is far more enjoyable....

Thank you for your ideas to chew on
Oct. 7th, 2006 09:07 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I think there's a difference between deliberately choosing people for their compatibility (which implies, at least to me, going out and searching for people who are in some way compatible with my existing partners), and going out and simply meeting people but choosing not to become romantically involved with those who don't get along with my current partners. Does that make sense?
Oct. 8th, 2006 06:42 am (UTC)
It does... the second is a less jaundiced way of doing things... but is still sounding like a difficult choice... because you might make a powerful connection that is then difficult to sever despite the difficulties... it's why some people invest WAY too much emotional energy in relationships that, in the long run, will not really be a positive thing for them....
Oct. 9th, 2006 01:20 pm (UTC)
Slightly off-topic...
I'm very curious about how your relationships integrate with each other, how you deal with scheduling & time & all the other issues that come with multiple partners who have multiple partners. Mainly because I like what I've read so far of how your relationships function as a family and as a whole integrated unit. Have you written anything about the dynamics of scheduling & integration that come into play when you are dealing with several people who all have busy lives, and may or may not live together?
Oct. 11th, 2006 08:58 pm (UTC)
As one of his partners, I think that the compatibility we all share with each other makes the scheduling issue very much a non-issue. I have an incredibly busy schedule, so busy in fact that we joke that Tacit and I have a long distance relationship even though we live in the same city. He sees his other partner (who lives across the state) more often than he sees me. And of course he sees his live-in partner more than either of us. And all of us have other partners too. The thing is, he makes time for each of us as our respective schedules permit, both alone and in groups. Because we all get along and we all do not believe that love = zero-sum, shared time is also quality time. We have plenty of conflicts with time, but his and my scheduling has never caused problems or been affected by problems soley because of our other partners. We quite often have large group activities (and I'm not talking about orgies) that include Tacit and all his partners, and my other partner, and his other partners' other partners. This counts as "quality time". Since we all have similar ideas about family and we mostly try to date people who feel the same way (some exceptions and their resulting dramas aside), I haven't felt any pressure about scheduling that came from Other Partners.

Finding partners who "fit in" with your current family is not just about adding people who can hang out at parties. It also includes a shared outlook on how relationships should be (or at least how *our* relationship should be). This means we may meet many people who are perfectly nice and fun to be around, but we might choose to keep them as friends, not romantic partners. Because we all appreciate what we have, our existing relationships, we respect and care for our partners and their other partners as part of a family. So we can choose to not date someone that would harm that existing relationship and all it's tendrils of family members. If the existing relationships are worth keeping and we love, care for and respect those in our "family", then passing up on someone who is not compatible is a small price to pay compared to the drama and pain we all would be subjected to by insisting we be "allowed" to date anyone and everyone that comes our way.
Oct. 12th, 2006 03:14 am (UTC)
Slightly off-topic...
I'm very curious about how your relationships integrate with each other, how you deal with scheduling & time & all the other issues that come with multiple partners who have multiple partners.

Heh. Funny you should mention that--I'm at a transition point right now where everything that's gone in the past is changing. Soon, all my relationships will be long-distance; I'm relocating to Atlanta for business reasons.

In the past, scheduling has never really been that big an issue, at least insofar as my partners are close enough for it not to be. (One of my sweeties, serolynne, lives on the other side of the state, so we do have to make a deliberate effort to spend time together--it doesn't happen by accident.) One of the nicest things about partners who see one another as family is that scheduling becomes much simpler, because each of them does not see any other as an 'intrusion'--it's possible to spend quailty time with more than one person at once. (A side effect is that the same extends to partners of partners; when serolynne went out of town a while ago, her partner Fritz came and spent some time with us, and just last weekend another of her partners happened to be in Gainesville and stopped by for a time. This goes a long way toward addressing one common complaint people have with polyamory--"But what will I do when my partner is not available? Does that mean I need to stay home alone?" And both serolynne and my sweetie joreth travelled to San Francisco a while back--not together, but each on their own--and spent time together while they were out there.)

It remains to be seen how the scheduling will work when I am in Tampa and my sweeties are in Florida.
Oct. 12th, 2006 03:24 am (UTC)
It remains to be seen, rather, when I am in Atlanta and my sweeties are in Florida. Grr.
(Deleted comment)
Oct. 12th, 2006 03:19 am (UTC)
Re: Question
Before you got into the relationships you're in right now, were you actively looking for people like the people who are now your romantic life, or did you simply keep your eyes open- how do you discover other people who share this way of thinking about love and relationships? I think your way of thinking about relationships seems very mature and sensible, but it also seems to be very rare. Where do you look? How do you look?

For the most part, I don't look for relationships. I am generally open to the possibility of forming new relationships, but I rarely (actually, almost never) go out seeking new partners. Almost all of my partners are drawn from my circle of friends; the overwhelming majority of my past and present partners are people I have known for extended periods of time--often, for years--before we became romantically connected.

Also, how much do you rely on people's ability to change? If you encountered a person who had many, but not all of the qualities you look for in partners, would you try to see if the few in absence could develop?

That's a hard question to answer; it depends, I think, on the specifics of the person and the situation. Certainly, I don't expect people to be perfect!

In most cases, because I've known my partners for years before a romantic relationship developed, there are few potential deal-breakers that pop up after a relationship has started. If a person seems almost perfect as a partner but does not have some skill or trait I think is important in a relationship, I am not adverse to keeping that person a part of my life as a friend; and if, with time and change, she or I come to be better suited as partners (change isn't just one-sided; the things I value in a partner now are not necessarily the things I valued in years past), we can always open that door to a relationship.
Oct. 11th, 2006 09:04 pm (UTC)
Thank you
If I didn't know any better, I'd swear this was written to me. But I know it's not. However, the timing of this post is quite serendipitous, so I thank you. I often find myself in a situation where I am trying to explain my thoughts and feelings, but not doing a good job of making myself understood. I keep wishing for various people I know to magically appear and say those things I want to say but can't. You figure into that fantasy (amogn other) quite a lot. I know what I want to say, and it makes sense to me as I say it, but it's just not being received the way I heard it come out. You so often say exactly what I'm thinking that I wish I could just wave my hand and have you pop into the conversation, while I say "just listen to Tacit, he knows what I'm trying to say".

Someone needs to read this post, so I'm going to print it out and bring it with me when we have our next discussion, because the first 50 times I tried to express this concept didn't seem to get through.
Dec. 18th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC)
This is something that I needed to read -- it's an issue that I struggle with in my own life, and one that I'd really love to find a solution too.

My problem is that my husband (who has been a friend since 1993 and a partner since 1999) has been a part of my life for longer than any of my other partners, and he really prefers things to be compartmentalized -- he's also monogamous, which complicates matters. I've been poly since before we got together, and it took some amount of negotiation to come to a compromise that works for both of us . . . I gave up on my preferred relationship structure (multiple primary partners, preferably as a live-in polyfamily), and he gave up on his preference for a monogamous partner.

We chose to get legally married because I have a worsening chronic health condition that caused me to need to quit working (I'm disabled now), and he was able to provide health insurance for myself and my daughter. (We'd been living together for several years before this happened, so it's not like our partnership was predicated on this, just the legal marriage.)

In my case, it helps that two of my partners are significantly long-distance, so when I spend face-to-face time with them, it's for a week or two at a time, but there's no issue of having them nearby and wanting to spend time on a more regular basis . . . but when I dated someone local, the segregation/compartmentalization was painful to the extent that I finally ended the relationship because of the conflict it was causing within me.

I certainly don't date everyone who comes around (at the risk of sounding vain, I have a lot of opportunities that I don't take), but . . . I wish there was a way to work around having an *existing* partner (and a relationship that you don't want to end) who prefers this more compartmentalized existence.


-- A :/
Dec. 18th, 2007 04:31 pm (UTC)
(To explain the new activity, this post was linked out of a current thread in the LJ Polyamory community, here: http://community.livejournal.com/polyamory/2342224.html)

We may just be looking at the same elephant from different perspectives, but to me it doesn't seem like there's a need to deliberately and artificially limit your involvement with someone due to the way they interact (or don't) with the other people in your life. If I like someone and enjoy her company, but she doesn't mesh well with other things which are also important in my life... whether those other things are my other relationships, or my taste in music, or the kind of work I do... then that fact, in an of itself, places a natural limitation on how close we're going to be able to get anyway.

The parts of my life which she doesn't care for will remain closed to her, and there's only so much time and energy I'll be able to invest in her without losing something from those parts of my life she's not a part of. So, just by letting the relationship seek its natural level of intimacy organically, don't you achieve much the same result?
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )