joreth: (Self-Portrait)
I am, I think, technically, a relationship anarchist although I don't identify with that label or the communities that have sprung up around the label. If I read the various definitions of the term (because dog forbid we let someone coin a term and everyone use the same damn definition), they more or less describe my viewpoint better than not.

One of the reasons why I don't identify with the term is because, in the early days of polyamory, those definitions *were* the definitions I was given for polyamory. I feel resentful of what I see as all the couples finding out about us through Montel Williams and the early news articles and invading "our" space. It's more complicated than that, but to me, we anarchists had this space first and the couples with their toxic monogamous paradigms infected it, driving out the later generations of people like me who came looking for community, didn't find it, and created their own space instead. I feel resentful of that and I keep trying to "take back" what I think of as my space so having throngs of people abandon the fight (because they aren't invested in the community like I am) makes me feel angry, and that is one of several reasons why I don't connect to the term.

But, aside from all of that, the whole reason why I gravitated towards polyamory in the first place is because I had all of these relationships that didn't fit into the neat and tidy little boxes that mono-centric culture insisted I must have. I was good friends with most of my exes. I had "best friends" to whom boyfriends had to take a backseat. I had casual partners who were good for a fuck but not good to call on in times of need. I had different ways of prioritizing my relationships that weren't tied to the kind of sexual activity we shared (or didn't share).

Some RAs insist that they don't do any ranking of relationships at all - that absolutely everyone in their contact book is exactly equal to everyone else. But others (and I would fall into this camp) say that it's not about never "ranking" anyone, it's about removing the requirement of sex as the most important ranking factor. It's about acknowledging that we have all these different kinds of relationships that mean different things to us, and romantic-sexual love should not be given the highest rung of priority *just because* it's romantic-sexual. There are other factors that are just as or more important in determining which person is given more of our priority, time, attention, emotional connection, etc.

As Charlotte once said in Sex And The City, "maybe we could be each other's soul mates, and guys can be these great, fun guys that we have sex with?" That's simplistic, sure, and there are tons of problematic things about the show, but even this heteromononormative piece of entertainment understood that sometimes people come into your life who are your anchor, your core, your foundation, and they are not necessarily the same people you have sex with.

My whole life I have struggled to explain my relationships. Part of the problem is because categorization is an inherently ranked system. Look at the words I've used so far - priority, important, more of... On the one hand, I rebel at the the thought of "ranking" anyone, but on the other hand, Dunbar's Number is still a valid theory. We have, essentially, rings of associations, and the closer someone is to the inner ring, the more ... just the "more" they are to us. That's how the brains of social animals work. Once someone is outside of our monkeysphere, they are Other, but inside that sphere, they are Someone and there are different levels of Someone inside the sphere.

I recognize that I have different levels of priority or connection to different people. I just don't associate those priorities or connections with the same markers as mononormative culture (i.e. sex, cohabitation, even relationship labels). Back before I rejected the primary/secondary terminology outright, I described my "primary" relationships in terms of connection rather than logistics. So, my Long Distance Relationships might be "primary" to me because of the strength of the connection I felt, but a local partner might be "secondary" or even "tertiary" because the connection was less, or ... different. Lots of people, particularly those aforementioned couples, in the poly community had a difficult time understanding this redistribution of primary/secondary terminology, which is what first made me reject those terms even before I really began railing against the inherent ranking in them.

So, I can explain all of this, and I have been for years, but it takes a lot of words for me to explain it. Today I read a sentence that explains it in way fewer words than I ever use.

"[H]aving a relationship with someone gives you an insight into how heavy or not heavy an emotional support request may be."

That's it. That's how I categorize my relationships. My "closeness" to someone, how often I talk to them, who gets "priority" and for what, who has sex with whom ... those may be factors that shade the relationship categorization, but those are not deciding factors. What "level" or what ring in the monkeysphere they reside on is based on how heavy an emotional support request of them might be. Can I call on them to vent for an hour on the phone about something or nothing? Can I ask them to perform Acts of Service for me? Which Acts of Service? Can I ask them to drop everything, pay for a last-minute plane ticket across the country or across the world, and just sit with me until I can quell the urge to reach for my gun without help? How emotionally expensive are these requests to them?

How heavy the request is and how not-heavy they feel the request to be is how I categorize my relationships. Not how long we've been together, not whether or not we have sex or what kind of sex, not their physical proximity, not how often we talk to each other, not the relationship label we use for each other, and not the outward markers of our relationship such as selfies together or going on "dates" or holding hands in public.

How much emotional labor is it a mutual joy to share with each other?

I've written before complaining about the amount of emotional labor I often do for others, particularly men. Those complaints are centered around an uneven distribution of emotional labor and the one-sided blindness of who is doing all the labor. By itself, emotional labor is not necessarily a bad thing. It's what partnerships are for - to share the labor to make the load easier for everyone. In happy, healthy relationships, there is a balance of emotional labor - not necessarily an equal division, but a *balance*, where each person feels comfortable shouldering the burden being requested of them and comfortable with the amount and type their partner is shouldering for them, based on their respective needs and desires and preferences.

That one sentence; it's so very simple to illustrate such a complex concept. Having an idea of how heavy of an emotional request I can make and how not-heavy they will receive that request - that's what separates out intimates from acquaintances from strangers for me. It's ranking, but it's not ranking. There's no implications of how many. There's no implied judgement (in my view) of someone being "bad" or "lesser" for the answer being a lighter load than someone else - just a different category, just as valuable, fulfilling a different niche. This request might be "too heavy", but that request might be OK. Not better and worse, just ... different. Not everyone is or can be *or should be* an emotional tank or heavy fighter. We need all kinds of skill sets to make up a good raiding party. So, to me, I don't see an implicit value judgement in this phrase, but some people probably will. There is probably a strong overlap in those people with the people who don't get polyamory in general, with those who *think* they get it but still say things like "I just can't imagine not caring enough about what my partner does with someone else, but you do you!"

But before I go off on another tangent about people's misconceptions of poly, let's wrap up this already long post. My relationships are categorized because that's how the brains of social animals work. But my categorization doesn't match the culturally accepted categorization system. The most important factor, culturally speaking, is sex - you save sex for The One Most Important Person or the sex is a representation that this person is The One Most Important Person. That seems, to me, like a rather shallow way to rank people. I have deemed you Most Important, therefore I will have sex with you (and only you), or I have deemed you Most Important *because* I have sex with you. Making that the defining criterion just seems so ... weird and arbitrary to me, especially when I *see* that it's not true in practice. Even monogamous people have platonic friends and family who are also The Most Important Person. But somehow their sex partner is elevated to this Other No Really The Most Important Person state?

I have lots of important people in my life. They are all important for different ways. They are all important because they are them and I am me and our relationships are a totally, unique organism made up of the blending of them and me that can never be reproduced or replicated by anyone else. And yet, even though everyone is important because they are unique, there is still a difference between them. There is still a difference between intimates, acquaintances, and strangers and even those 3 categories have fuzzy edges and blend into each other.

That difference is based on how heavy of an emotional request can I make and how heavy do they feel that request to be. No value judgement, people are not "bad" or "good" for the amount they can carry for me, they just are. Some people are heavy lifters, some are short burst sprinters, some can only carry certain types of weight and not others. But that's how I see my relationships. That's how I determine who are my core relationships, my satellite relationships, and my comet relationships. That's how my relationship constellation is organized.

Date: 12/26/16 10:47 pm (UTC)From: [identity profile] robin goodfellow (from livejournal.com)
Oooh this is such a good way of framing it. Thanks! Lightbulbs going off in my head thanks to this.

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