joreth: (Purple Mobius)
Here's a poly lesson I learned from my monogamous family:

My parents are of the zero-sum mindset. Time spent with loved ones either "doesn't count" or "counts less" when there are other people they don't consider "family" present. Legal spouses "count", so my aunt could visit when she was single and it would be "quality time", and she could visit with her husband when she got married and it was "quality time", but if she invited her boyfriend (who was the guy she eventually ended up marrying), it would have been rude.

Once someone is a legal spouse, he is immediately part of the family with no reservations. My parents are actually really good about that. They taught me that someone is family because an existing family member brought them into the family, and that new person is family no matter what. Even if my parents didn't like him, he's family because the person they love considers him family.

But this only applies to legal spouses.

Sort of.

They're not hostile or antagonistic towards non-spouse partners. All of my extended relatives' boyfriends and girlfriends were welcomed, and I believe my parents grew to love those partners who stuck around long enough to turn into spouses even prior to the actual wedding date. So I haven't yet figured out that magical moment when someone becomes "family" as opposed to just "someone family is dating". I only know that once it's legal, it's cemented.

My parents have been very good about welcoming my boyfriends too. There's an obvious difference between the polite welcome they gave to the boyfriends they didn't like and the warm welcome they gave to the boyfriends they did like, but they welcomed them nonetheless. However, if there was some kind of milestone special moment, my parents wanted it to be "just family". And a boyfriend wasn't "family", but a spouse was (although they have since learned to make an exception for the father of my sister's kid - they're not married but the kid is a toddler and he's an active parent and my sister loves him, so they've been forced to rearrange their mindset on this one).

My parents were uncomfortable with me having boyfriends over for opening presents on Christmas morning, or sharing Thanksgiving dinner, and they were most definitely *not* happy about me doing those sorts of things with someone else's family instead of them.

And I have never been able to wrap my head around this. It has something to do with longevity, that much I can grasp. To my monogamous Christian parents, marriage was "for life" (even if they, personally, knew people who were divorced, like my dad's parents), so once they signed that paper, the spouse was now stuck with us "forever". But a non-spouse partner could be here today, gone tomorrow - you just never know. It's like my parents felt a degree of uncertainty without that legal document so strongly that I never felt and it affected our ability to see eye to eye on this subject.  It's kind of like that one episode of How I Met Your Mother where Lily gets pissed off at Ted for inviting a date to her birthday party and she brings out the photo album to show a lifetime of important family milestones with random women in the pictures who are not around anymore.  She feels that her birthday party is diminished by the presence of this woman whose name she won't even need to remember the following year.

It's true that my past partners were only partners for a handful of years - a small portion of my lifetime. But some of them remained family even after the breakup, while even more of them at least remained friends, or friendly. Two of those past partners whom I still consider "family" are friends with me here on FB - on my "real identity" account, as opposed to my family-friendly feed which is a heavily censored version of me. Notice that my parents are on the censored feed and my previous partners are on the "real me" feed.

As a teen and young adult when I was still living near enough to my parents for this to matter, every time my parents "suggested" that perhaps I ought not to invite my boyfriend to something because it's "just for family", I was heartbroken. Every negation of that relationship was a slice with a sharp blade into my soul. This was all before giving up monogamy or learning the word "polyamory". This was just a monogamous partner about whom I was made to feel "didn't count". Our relationship wasn't "real" or "serious" because he wasn't part of the "family" yet, and he wasn't part of the family yet because our relationship wasn't "real" or "serious". I had platonic friends who my parents saw as "family" but not boyfriends. Literally - I had a friend who was abused by her father and my parents put in to foster her when we finally got her out of that situation. My parents were "parents" to several of my friends, but not the guys I loved enough to think at the time that I might spend the rest of my life with.

Fast-forward to my post-poly discovery, and I learned that there are some people who see their metamours the same way that my parents see the non-spouse partners of our family. I am already wounded and building up scar tissue from having my relationships dismissed, negated, overlooked, and now I find out that even in polyamory, where the very *premise* of what we're doing is that we can love more than one, I can't escape this zero-sum mindset. That there are some people who, like my parents, think that time with me (or with their partners) would be lessened, tainted, or diminished simply because of the mere presence of another person - that other person, by the way, who the partner in question (me, in the example of my parents) happens to feel is very important to them.

It should be obvious, but I know from past internet arguments that it isn't, but I am not suggesting that alone-time with intimate people isn't important. I am not suggesting that it is *always* appropriate to have another person present or that there aren't *any* times when an intimate moment does, in fact, lose its intimacy because of the presence of someone else. I'm suggesting the opposite end of the spectrum - that there are people who consider any and *all* time shared with a third (or more) person is *inherently* diminished in some capacity.

My parents have already taught me the lesson that this idea damages the very relationship that the zero-sum person is trying to protect. Because my parents are resistant to "sharing" me with other people, I have, over the years, become more and more resistant to spending time with them even though I love them very much and consider my upbringing and my family to be good experiences in general. I want to spend time with all sorts of people who are important to me, and the people who make me choose are often the people who lose.

I almost kind of wish that poly people with zero-sum mindsets had the experience I had - that someone they loved refused to acknowledge the importance of a relationship they valued, so that they would know the pain and heartbreak and damage they cause to their relationships when they do it to them. I went *into* polyamory already understanding how important it is to validate and welcome my metamours because I already knew how hurtful it was to claim a level of superiority or priority and to dismiss the value and importance that someone else might have to someone I love.

Contrary to those who defend their couple privilege, I don't have this viewpoint because I'm somehow more "evolved" or "enlightened" or even because I'm more experienced at poly. I do not cotton to the "training wheel" theory of polyamory. I do not believe that we have to do things "wrong" in order to learn how to do them "right". I believe it is possible to start out as a young, inexperienced person with baggage and cultural programming and still practice the "right" ways from the start. I was young and inexperienced, and I still started out right from the beginning validating and valuing my metamours.

It wasn't always easy and I also made some mistakes that sprang out of internalized couple privilege, but I still *started* by practicing the skills that I hoped to one day "master", rather than practicing those bad habits that I would have to unlearn after some magical future moment when I was emotionally "mature" enough to do it "right" even though I had been practicing it "wrong" the whole time. I have yet to understand how anyone becomes an accomplished ice skater by practicing piano. If you want to learn how to be an ethical poly person and treat your partners and metamours with respect for their agency, you start out by practicing respect for their agency, not hamstringing their agency.  If you want to learn how to trust someone, you start out by trusting them and seeing what they do with that gift of your trust.  Nobody can "earn" trust if you don't give them any trust to prove that they're trustworthy.

Anyway, this lesson from my parents is particularly difficult for me because it's not consistent. That's not true, it actually is consistent if you look at it from the right angle. See, in my family, there are certain special milestones that are celebrated *as a family*, not privately. Anniversaries, for example. My parents never had a *private* anniversary celebration. Oh, I'm sure they did some "celebrating" in private, but I mean that they never went to an anniversary dinner without taking us kids (unless they got a babysitter prior to when my memories formed). Their big anniversaries were celebrated with as many family members as we could get to come. Anniversaries were group affairs, which is apparently a weird thing to some people and, if I think about it, I can see why. I mean, an anniversary is a celebration of a relationship between two people. So it kinda makes sense that two people might want to celebrate it privately between the two of them, since the *relationship* is something private between the two of them.

So this is actually another pro-poly lesson I learned from my parents. To me, lots of events are open to the extended family. Most of my relationship anniversaries are open to my metamours to celebrate with us because that's how my parents saw their marriage. But it seems inconsistent with their stance on discouraging non-spouse partners to "important" moments. It seems inconsistent if I view my non-spouse partners as "family", though, because "family" is supposed to be welcome at these events and my parents weren't welcoming them even while they welcomed other family.

But it's not inconsistent when I factor in the fact that they *rank* people. "Family" is welcome, but boyfriends are not "family" to my parents. I don't have the same ranking system for the people in my life. Is he important to you? OK then he's invited. But to people like my parents, it's not enough for someone just to be "important" to me (or my sister or my aunt or whoever). They have to be "legitimately important" - hence the automatic extension for spouses. So now we're back to bad poly lessons - or rather, lessons on the sorts of damage that bad relationship skills and personal insecurities can have on those and other relationships.

My monogamous parents support the "ranking" system that I see a lot of newbie polys support. Some people "count" more than others (and don't a single one of you derail the comments with talk about *priority* - if you haven't figured out my stance on power vs. priority by now, go away and read up on it elsewhere). In my very large and very involved extended but monogamous family-of-origin, I see a lot of parallels between them and my poly network. My parents and their kids were the nucleus of what was the "most important" to them in terms of priority, but cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, even great-aunts and great-uncles and second cousins and first cousins twice removed were all still *family* to them, and priority was reassigned based on circumstance.

So, for example, my father is now retired. His incredibly elderly aunt has cancer, is a widow, and her only son is mentally handicapped to a point that he can't completely care for himself let alone her. So when she went in the hospital, my dad dropped everything and went down to stay with her. This was 2 months ago and he's still there. If we were to nitpick about "priority", his wife & kids would still have priority over his aunt, but the situation calls for a reassessment of priority and everyone in the family, my mom included, support my father in taking care of my great-aunt, even though my mom technically "loses" my father to my great-aunt.

They would love it if I could visit my great-aunt too. I may never see her again. She's old and has an aggressive form of cancer that has already been taken advantage of by an opportunistic pneumonia infection. If I could afford it, everyone would be thrilled to see me visit her for would would most likely be the last time.

But if I invited a boyfriend to visit with me ... I hardly know the woman, although I did spend a lot of time with her as a kid. She's my dad's aunt, not mine, and I haven't seen her in, what, almost two decades? But she out-ranks a boyfriend, according to my family. Somehow, having a boyfriend present would diminish the amount of quality in our time together. And that's something I just never understood.

Because to someone with a zero-sum mindset, people are ranked, and that rank is built-in to their position in the family, not the actual connection between the people in the family, and that ranking bleeds over onto nearby ranks. Like if you mix a paint color with white paint - the color is "lessened" because the white lightens it. Before you point out that the white is also made "more than" by the addition of the color or that neither is "lessened" or "improved" but rather everything is changed into something new, that doesn't matter, because the color outranks the white, and it's the color that matters to a zero-sum mindset.

So my monogamous parents taught me how important it is for the health of my relationships to value the other people in my friends and partners' lives because I know first-hand how much it hurts to have those other relationships devalued by people you admire and love and desire to have approval of.

They taught me that extended family is important even when different relationships have different priorities.

They taught me that someone becomes family because they are connected to someone who is family and it is not within my power to deny them that welcome because it is not my connection that makes them family or not.

And they taught me that there is very little about polyamory that doesn't apply outside of polyamory so that I don't need to wait until the Relationship Skills Fairy magically endows me with Emotional Maturity and Poly Experience to start treating people with the sort of consideration that I hope to one day actually be good at. Because, chances are, I already do have some kind of experience to draw on that I can apply right now, and I will get better at it with practice. So I don't need to disrespect my partners or my metamours while I'm waiting to somehow learn how to respect them by practicing disrespect.

Date: 3/8/16 07:38 am (UTC)From: [identity profile] alumiere.livejournal.com
this is really good. as someone was raised in a family where there was lots of extended family always around we ended up in similar places. if you are family to me, then those you love are family too, whether it's short lived or no.

but for me, that family dynamic is part of what made poly the right choice. i already welcomed my loves' loves in my life easily, which means poly feels natural to me in a way that i often see pthers struggle with. i will point them here next time - it may help.

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