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I get asked often what poly people commit to if it isn't sexual fidelity. I've never understood this question because every monogamous person I know makes commitments other than sexual fidelity. I've been to a lot of weddings, I've heard the vows. Not a single one of them was ever "I promise to allow only your genitalia to touch mine", nor did I ever hear the odious "I promise to always make my genitalia available for your use" which is usually a post hoc rationalization for cheating or domestic partner rape, but that's a separate rant.
I've heard vows like promising to honor, love, cherish, through sickness and in health, in good times and bad. I've heard promises to never go to bed angry. I've heard promises to depend on each other. And most people, if you ask them to define their relationships without using their wedding vows, might also say that they promise things like being each other's best friend or trusting each other or committing to raising kids together or even mundane things like co-signing a mortgage that will tie them together for 30 years with the implicit understanding that this means that they are committed to paying their bills together. Sometimes they're committed to supporting each other while one or the other (or both) pursue dreams like school or high risk career paths. Sometimes they're just committed to growing old together.
So there are a lot of things that people commit to. I will readily admit that the things I commit to in my relationships may not be the same things that other people, especially monogamous people, commit to. But the surprise and curiosity is not that I commit to different things - it's that I'm not committing to sexual exclusivity so they can't think of anything else that I might commit to.
My metamour recently wrote an analogy for a totally different topic, but I find it's applicable here. She said "It’s like when you’re a vegetarian and someone looks at you sadly and says “what do you eat?” because all they picture is canned green beans and a slice of Wonder Bread. “[What do you commit to if not sexual fidelity?]” But…but…do you realize that there are like five kinds of animals that we regularly eat, and, like, literally a kazillion other kinds of foods? I just. Argh!"
This subject comes up often, and I can usually think up a list of things that I commit to. And those commitments have changed over time and with different partners, and I've also gotten better at expressing what my commitments actually are with more sophistication and nuance. But the last time I answered that question, I was frustrated at the question and I had also just gotten out of a relationship with someone who didn't seem to have the first clue what I had agreed to commit to within our relationship. When I answered that question, I put together what I thought was a pretty good list. And other people seem to think so too. I've been asked if people can share that list on their own social media pages, and I've been asked if I can re-post it when the question has come up since then.
So I took that list, created in the heat of the moment, and refined it. Then I passed it through my version of "peer review" and asked some of my network to evaluate it. Mostly, I wanted grammar and syntax review. I tend to be a tad on the verbose side (no, really!) and I wanted to make sure that I wasn't being redundant or unclear. But I can usually count on my metamour, Shelly, to see things in a different light. Even when I don't agree with her, she usually makes me aware of perspectives I hadn't considered before. And especially when I disagree, she makes me learn to explain and express myself better by defending my position to someone as brilliant and insightful as she is. Basically, Shelly keeps me on my toes. She started a conversation among my small group of reviewers that helped me to refine what I was trying to say even more and prompted this page. I realized that I needed to have a full explanation for each point because different people are going to interpret my points in different ways.
This is a list of things that I commit to, right now, in my relationships. This is not an agreement or contract that my partners and metamours have all signed and reciprocated. When I asked for their review, it was not to get a consensus agreement. The members of my poly network do not commit to the exact same things that I do, and we all prioritize our commitments differently from each other too. For instance, Franklin suggested a different order to this list based on which he prioritizes more, whereas I lumped like with like and what flowed to and from what. But the people I admire most, the ones who share most of my values, the ones who I respect for their ability to express themselves and complex concepts, they tend to have similar commitments and the discussion that this list generated seems to have brought us in line with each other just a bit more, as we discussed semantics and implications. My preference is to have partners who have very similar commitments themselves, which would also lead to their other partners (my metamours) having very similar commitments, and so on down the line. This is, of course, a preference, not a mandate, and even I sometimes stray from the goal.
As I said, this is a list of things that *I* commit to in my relationships, but this is not an agreement or contract that my partners have committed to. I don't do rules, and I am very dubious these days even about "agreements", based on how I see them used in practice. I have come to the conclusion that commitments made to myself regarding my relationships are a more effective method of ethical treatment and expectation management than agreements / rules / commitments made to other people. I believe that adherence to these commitments leads directly to the sorts of behaviours that motivate people to make rules / agreements / commitments between each other in the first place, but that this achieves the end result while bypassing the potential to treat our partners like children and servants and need-fulfillment machines as well as avoiding the habit of making the relationship more important than the people in it, and it serves to reduce rules-lawyering too (although a good rules-lawyer can Pedantically Miss The Point and argue about anything, if he wants to).
I want to address each of the commitments, one at a time. Because I had in mind a printable version of my list, I had to fit a great deal of information in a small amount of space. I was going for soundbite-sized commitments - statements that could represent larger concepts that would have ideally been discussed among the relevant parties during the course of a relationship and the prior get-to-know-each-other stage. People have asked for my list in some kind of usable form for themselves, so I feel the need to put those larger concepts that each point represents into a similarly tangible form that can be referenced. Because if I know the internet, this will undoubtedly create confusion and debate and argument as people disagree with this point or that in spite of this being a personal document that no one has to adopt as their own unless they want to. I will probably never understand the need for people to look at someone else's personal revelations and say "this doesn't work for me, you should change it" but that's what people do*.
If this list works for you, great, download the graphic, print it out, share the text, buy a poster and hang it on your wall. If it doesn't, then you don't have to use it. If it mostly works for you, then feel free to use it as inspiration to create your own. Just don't argue with me about it, or suggest that *I* should change it to make it fit your definitions or situation, and don't post the graphic without the copyright notice attached or post only part of the graphic. I didn't have to put this into digital graphic form, but I did because people asked for a way to share it. So please keep it intact when you do (click the picture to enlarge). And a link back to this page for explanation would be appreciated too.
I created this graphic for two reasons: 1) Because people asked me for permission to share my original commitment post that this came from, so I wanted to create something share-able that I could be proud of and also less likely to be edited and then taken out of context, which a text-based format could have done to it more easily; 2) So that I could have a piece of art that would also serve as a reminder for myself much like other people have hanging on their walls or in their photo albums a copy of their wedding vows or D/s rules. This graphic can be posted digitally, or it can be purchased as a 16x20 poster or 11x14 poster. I have already printed one for myself and I plan to hang it on my wall to remind myself of my commitments every time I look at it. It may not sit literally right next to my other posters, but it keeps company with my poster of the Taxonomy of Logical Fallacies, my Map of the Lands of Human Sexuality poster, and my poster of the Principles For Good Relationships, all of which are tangible reminders of the person I want to be and the bars I set for myself. These serve to help keep me accountable, and I hope that my Commitments poster will do the same.
I strongly believe that I hold each of these rights myself, and no one else does. No one even gets them on loan, although I understand that some people willingly abdicate rights of making and / or being responsible for decisions through D/s arrangements. But even then, the sub retains their own autonomy in that they are able to consent to such an arrangement and are able to revoke consent to such an arrangement. That's what sets D/s apart from abuse - it's an illusion. But before I digress too far, I believe that I absolutely have the right to make informed decisions and the consequences of said decisions rests with me (assuming that they were, in fact, informed decisions). I believe that it is absolutely my right to act as I deem fit for myself to act and that no one in a romantic relationship has any authority or power to direct my actions. And I believe that I absolutely and with no exceptions have the right to my physical body, to decisions about my body, and to what is allowed to happen to my body.
No one can make decisions for me, no one can dictate my actions or behaviour, and no one has access to my body without my permission. Period. End of statement. However, in order to behave ethically in my relationships, I have to accept that everyone else has the exact same rights as I do. They can choose to do what they want with those rights, but they have those rights. My partners must be allowed to make informed decisions, so I must therefore provide all the information that I have to make those decisions. It is categorically unethical to withhold or spin information that might affect my partners' decisions. My partners must have the freedom to be responsible for those decisions.
My partners must have the room and the freedom and the authority to act in whatever way they deem appropriate, providing it does not infringe on my own rights. This means that I can request anything of my partners, but they have the right to say no. Consent is meaningless if you can't say no. They can choose who their other partners are, they can choose what activities they share with those partners, they can choose where they live and what they eat and what they read and who they consort with. They can act or behave however they want. But, as someone with their own autonomy, they are also responsible for their decisions to act.
My partners own their own bodies. They do not owe me their bodies in any way. They do not owe me sex. They do not owe me their health. They do not owe me anything. Their bodies are their own, and they may choose to share physical experiences with me as they like. This one should be the most obviously clear point. Unfortunately, I have been in too many arguments over things like consent and "owing" sex and the expectation of sex being part of the "marriage contract", so I know that this is not, in fact, an obviously clear point.
But, occasionally, I have partners who have friends who are, shall we say, douchecanoes. Sometimes I have partners who invite people into their lives for reasons completely unfathomable to me. And I have been less than respectful on some of those occasions. Now, more often than not, once one of my partners has someone he cares about (like me) make a stand and refuse to be with the asshat friend, they usually start to see the fucknugget from someone else's perspective, and they often tend to drop off contact with said dipshit. But my commitment is to making sure that I accept that my partners may have relationships with other people, including ones whom I do not like, and that, although I may not understand what my partners see in those other people, it doesn't matter because they see something valuable and I need to respect that. My partners may eventually come around to seeing someone I dislike from my vantage point, but it has to be the result of them seeing the shitstain for who and what s/he is, not because I exerted any sort of pressure on them to alter their relationship for my sake. And if their relationship with their loved one causes a big enough problem for me, then I need to examine it from the perspective that this is an incompatibility between myself and my partner - what that relationship says about him, his perspective, or his worldview and how that is not compatible with me, my perspective, or my worldview - and it needs to be addressed as such, not as me dictating to him what role other people can or should play in his life.
So I need a reminder that forcing my metamour relationships to conform to a prescripted relationship path is no different than forcing romantic relationships to conform to a prescripted relationship path. I have been on the other end, with a metamour trying to force a relationship structure on me that didn't fit, and I am committed to making an effort to avoid doing that to someone else. The things I value most about my various metamours is our differing relationships. Just like my romantic partners and just like my non-poly-connected friends, each metamour relationship is special precisely because it is unique and tailored to the metamour associated with the relationship. I have very important connections with each of my metamours and they only exist because each relationship was allowed to flourish in its own way.
Not all of my metamour relationships are going to be as amazing as the ones I have now, and not all of my past relationships have been this wonderful. Several times, I have had virtually no relationship with a metamour because we just didn't mesh well. If we hadn't had a mutual partner, we wouldn't have had any reason to be connected to each other at all. Only one time did I have a metamour with whom I didn't get along and I was not satisfied with merely coexisting. I believe that the reason is because she artificially imposed a distance between us due to her discomfort with poly relationships. I still use a willingness to meet and foster friendly metamour relations as a litmus test for poly readiness, so this commitment is to remind me that a willingness to meet and foster friendly metamour relations must be different in both intent and execution from prescripting those same metamour relationships to fit my preconceived notions of poly family.
My family is a chosen family. As an adopted child, it was really hammered home that we are family because we chose to be family through the bonds of love, not blood. But my family was more than just my parents and myself. It was my parents, my sister, my grandparents, my dozen aunts and uncles, my two dozen cousins, great aunts and great uncles, second cousins twice removed, and family friends. Just because someone was a cousin, it didn't mean that we had the exact same relationship as the relationship that I had with my other cousin. I was allowed to develop different kinds of relationships with my different family members. We were friends, or not, as was natural. But at the same time, I was expected to welcome new members into the family because the happiness of the person they were connected to was important. I was expected to be considerate of my cousins and other relatives and to be aware of how my actions affected them. These were valuable lessons that I take with me into my poly family. My metamour relations are allowed to develop in whatever structure is most natural for the personalities involved. I welcome metamours into the family because the happiness of our mutual partner is important and it's his desire to date her that defines whether or not she's part of the family, not my like or dislike of her. I am considerate of my metamours and I try to be aware of how my actions affect them. To me, that's what makes an extended family.
I once knew someone who wrote a blog post all about starting with the assumption that partners are on the same side, and how much smoother conflict resolution goes with that premise. It impressed the hell out of me at the time. But then I got a closer look at how he actually handles conflict resolution in practice. Everything that his partners did that triggered a bad feeling in him was countered with "how could you do that to me?!" Notice I said "that triggered a bad feeling", not "that did something negative towards him". When his partners did something that had nothing at all to do with him, when they made choices that directly affected only themselves or themselves and other people, when they misunderstood something and then went out and did something based on their misunderstanding of the situation, when they didn't take him into account at all, or even when they did consider him and intentionally chose what they thought was the best possible option under the circumstances, if he felt wibbly about it for any reason at all, he interpreted the action as a conscious, deliberate attack on him. EVERYTHING was in opposition. As far as I could tell, he only believed that his partners were on his side if they happen to think, want, or do something that he thought, wanted, or did. It got to the point where the others in his family just stopped telling him when they disagreed because, as one said to me, "it's just not worth the fight". They didn't all agree to disagree; the others didn't let him know that they disagreed, so he thought they were all agreeing with him on things he felt strongly about when they weren't. Then, when someone new came along and didn't yet know how much trouble it was, he would talk to the others in the group, who wouldn't disagree out loud, and then go back to the one and say "we all think you're wrong," making the new person feel isolated and ganged up on during conflicts, increasing the feeling that they were not on the same side, but were in opposition.
Our insecurities have a way of getting control of our rational brains and steering us into the shallows with hidden reefs and rocks and the wreckage of past sunken ships now lying in wait to take us down with them. It's far easier to see someone with a different vision and believe that it's in opposition to ourselves than to take a look at all the underlying issues and motivations and biases and assumptions, where we might have to face that someone else sees things more clearly, or that we might have interpreted something incorrectly, or that we might not actually be on the same path with the person we love, or that sometimes shit just happens and we can't always have things match our idyllic utopian ideals, or even that we did the damage ourselves. It's very dificult to see someone with a different perspective whose very prespective might be different precisely because they have the same goals we do but different experiences telling them how to get there.
I've had a long history with partners who weren't on my side. I've dated a lot of people who really didn't like me very much. I was always some "hot chick" or some sexually adventurous chick that they were attracted to, or who made them feel awed that I might be interested in them, or who offered them an opportunity that they didn't want to pass up. And sometimes I was just a warm body with the appropriate genitalia. But I wasn't always someone who was compatible with them. And too many guys have tried to overlook that fact, leading to relationships where they didn't really like who I was and either hoped to change me or hoped they could ignore the stuff they didn't like in order to get the stuff they did like.
But taking the assumption that my partners don't really like me into my relationships from the beginning is kind of a good way to guarantee that we'll end up on opposite sides, one way or another. I've made it very difficult to get to know me and I put my worst foot forward, all to weed out those who don't really like me very much and to keep around only those who really are on the same side. So I want to remind myself that my partners love and cherish me, that they are with me because they want to be my partners, and that, even if we seem to be on opposing sides, maybe from their perspective, they are actually trying to accomplish the same goal, which is to find a way for both of us to be happy.
So when I decided that I was inherently kinky but had no idea how to explore it safely and that I had some relationship fears that were preventing me from experiencing a larger range of happiness in my relationships, and I met Franklin who was skilled in just those things, I told him that I was interested in dating him for the purpose of working on those issues with his help. What followed was a decade-long relationship (as of today) that is the healthiest relationship I've ever been in and the eradication or reduction of exactly those inhibitions that I felt were hampering my relationships. Dating Franklin has made me a better person and I'm very different in some key ways than I was 10 years ago, some ways I didn't even anticipate or set out to change. So I really don't want to cut off avenues, even implicitly, for personal growth in my partners. I want to encourage their growth.
But at the same time, related to the previous point, I can't stand the popular romantic ideal "I love you, now change". So when I rejected "accepting my partners for who they are", I considered something like "promoting growth and accepting change". But that led me too closely to "I love you, now change". I don't want to push my partners into being my ideal for them. I don't want a Pygmalion project. I don't view my partners as fixer-uppers and I most certainly don't want them to view me as such. So I ultimately came up with this phrasing that I hope will reinforce two conflicting relationship goals - to accept my partners for who they are without trying to change them into something that I want them to be; and to encourage and support growth and change without letting fear of the outcome of that change lead me to restricting them from things that are in their best interests (but not necessarily mine).
Taking care of myself should be a goal all on its own. But sometimes taking care of myself is a means to an end. Sometimes, some of us need to be in a good state for someone else's sake. My sister was on a downward trajectory involving drugs, alcohol, sex-too-young, and lack of education. But then she got pregnant. Suddenly, her own health became of paramount importance because she had someone else to care for. I'm not saying that my own health takes a backseat to how well I can serve someone else, but I am saying that my ability to be a good partner is related to how well I take care of myself, and these are a list of commitments intended to remind myself of how to be a good partner, so it's included because it's an integral part of being a good partner.
I'm tired of trying to nail down every little detail for every possible hypothetical scenario. That's not realistic. This commitment is intended to cover all my partners current and future, which means it has to accommodate for different arrangements and different people. I've cut away all the extraneous details and just gotten to the point - the underlying goal for what all those rules and agreements and boundaries are supposed to be doing: I will protect my safety and my partners' safety by giving the information they need to give informed consent (thereby respecting their agency, autonomy, and personal sovereignty) based on their respective boundaries, we will use that information in an analysis designed to assess risk on a per-case basis, and I will not use sexual safety boundaries to mask emotional concerns or issues. If I am feeling concerned about a partner taking on a new partner, and my concern does not match the actual, evidence-based risk, then I intend to get to the root of the issue without using safer sex boundaries as an excuse or justification or a Motte-And-Bailey Doctrine.
I get it, really I do. I've been there myself. No one wants to look like they're cavalier about safer sex, so pulling out the "I'm worried about STIs so we need to have safe sex boundaries / rules / agreements" card is a great way to make someone toe the line. It's really easy to avoid looking deeper at an insecurity when that insecurity just gave us a perfectly reasonable distraction to focus on - sexual safety. I was once so bothered by a metamour's resistance to polyamory that I said I felt "unsafe" and instituted physical barriers and restrictions between myself and my partner. I now know that was the wrong way to handle it. I should have said that my emotional concerns are affecting my willingness to be physically intimate with him, and I shouldn't have hidden behind "safety". That would have been owning my shit. But I didn't, and I do not wish to make that mistake again. At the same time, though, I want both the freedom to pursue relationships as I see fit and to be the sort of person who feels a responsibilty for how her actions affect her partners so that I will be considerate of the risks that I take with regards to how they impact others.
This commitment to myself seeks to find that balance between consideration for others and freedom for myself and honoring their freedom; between maintaining a rational, reason-based, evidence-based skeptical worldview and embracing opportunity, love, sex, relationships, being vulnerable, and other emotion-based actions that bring color and depth to life.
I had a partner once, though, who really hammered this lesson home for me. He did not understand that, because of the way I process things internally, by the time I'm willing to mention it at all, it's big enough to be considered an "issue" and something that needs to be addressed. So I had to learn to be clear about these things. I had to learn how to say things like "this is something that kind of bothers me but isn't really a big deal, so if you did something about it, that would be great, but not imperative" and "this is a problem that doesn't bother me all that much right now but you need to prioritize solving this with me before it becomes a serious issue." He needed to know the difference between "I'm just stating something" and "I need some kind of action from you on this".
If I didn't explicitly tell him that I needed a response, then he merely acknowledged that he heard me and moved on. I took "acknowledgment" to mean more than simply "I hear you"; I took it to mean "I accept your request to do something about this". Even if I said "I'd like you to do X that you're not currently doing", he heard that only as a suggestion that he was free to take or leave, not that I was having a problem over which his non-compliance would eventually strain our relationship. So when nothing would get done, I'd only gently remind him in an effort not to become the "nagging girlfriend", which he would continue to merely acknowledge that I said something and still not do anything about it, and it would continue until I finally got pissed off at him and he sat there wondering where all that anger came from, since he never understood that he was supposed to do anything about what I was saying. So I eventually developed the skill of explaining how important to me a response was, what kind of response I was hoping for, and where on the timeline this request fell between annoyance I can live with and relationship implosion.
Franklin, by the way, is super amazing at guessing when something is a Big Deal even before I recognize it myself that it is a Big Deal. He doesn't have a 100% track record, but he long ago recognized that the very act of stating something is an invitation to explore one's vulnerability, so he tends to take what I say very seriously. Which means that he has, on several occasions, prioritized something just because I happened to mention I would like something done even before I, myself, realized that doing this thing was incredibly important to my happiness and the health of our relationship. But we are both active communicators, and we both have a hard time understanding passive communicators, so if there's going to be a problem understanding a call to action, that's probably where it will be found. This is also a reminder to me to continue to improve my active communication skills.
For example, I might prioritize a live-in partner because we share a daily life so calling to let him know that I won't be home for dinner might be important so that he doesn't waste any effort making dinner for me. But if a long-distance partner comes for a visit, I might spend more time with the long-distance partner than with my local partner because I'll have plenty of time to catch up with the local partner later and the long-distance partner won't have that privilege. But then there are pre-established commitments, like holiday plans or tickets to an event that are already purchased. But then there are one-time-only events or emergencies. And then there are regularly-scheduled events that can afford to be skipped now and then precisely because they're regularly scheduled and something "special" or "important" or "meaningful" might need to take that time slot.
The important part is that every situation gets analyzed both individually and within context, and that every situation gets discussed with all relevant parties. Everyone gets an equal say. Not to each other, no. One of my partners does not get an equal say in what I do with one of my other partners. Everyone I'm in a relationship with is on equal footing to me, not to each other. No one outside of a relationship gets more say about what happens to that relationship than the people in it. That's why priority has to be assigned situationally. I have found that making everyone equal to their own partners in their own relationships yields much better results and more likelihood of everyone being willing to compromise, make sacrifice, and "take turns" with regards to priority because they tend to trust that their turn will come around sometime soon and that it all balances out in the long run. And that fosters far more security, I've found, in relationships than giving any individual top priority all the time, and certainly honors my first commitment far better too.
The point is that there are classifications of sexual partners that exist in the world, and in which I engage on occasion, that include a mutually reciprocated lack of interest in deep emotional or logistical entanglements and priority (that don't need to be prescripted as such and that don't need to include an imbalance in power dynamic). I don't wish to erase those partners from my history or web of partners, but I also can't include them in this same commitment because part of the point of our arrangement together is that we don't prioritize each other, at least not on "the highest ring". Then there are friends and family who I do prioritize on the highest ring but who are not "partners" in a romantic, emotional, logistical, or sexual sense who would be left out. When I crowd-sourced the question of what kind of terminology could be used to describe someone to whom one is deeply emotionally attached and who is highly prioritized in life entanglement considerations, other than all the usual labels and semantics comments that were besides the point, "loved ones" was the only term that was suggested that really fit the point I was trying to make here. When I am in a loving relationship, where "love" is a verb whether I've said the loaded phrase "I love you" or not, part of "loving" them in this sense is in making them one of my top priorities. And that does not require specifying whether or not we have sex or what category label is used to define our relationship, which solved my dilemma of having certain partners who do not, actually, receive this commitment from me.
Second, this is a personal commitment in my life that I made a deliberate effort to change. I have always prioritized my work above anything else. I've always been poor. Some years I've been poorer than others. If I don't prioritize my work, I literally won't survive sometimes. But besides that, I'm also doing my dream job. Choosing this line of work has put me directly in the line of fire of sexism and entitlement. I have spent my entire life justifying my life choices, including my job, to people who think that women shouldn't do what I want to do or that their personal desires and fears should trump my own freedom to make choices in my life. I've spent my whole life arguing with people who insist that my job is too dangerous, or not a suitable environment for women, or that I should choose something financially safe like a nice secretarial job. I've spent my entire dating life arguing with men who think that their desire for my time or their concern for my safety should outweigh the fact that I love my job with a passion and my job is one of the things that makes me feel that life is worth living.
So I've reacted to this lifetime of experiences by prioritizing my job above the people in my life. About a decade ago, I decided that this decision prevented me from other sorts of experiences that also make life worth living. I made a decision to not let my valued relationships take a backseat to my job. These two things didn't trade places; my job isn't now taking a backseat to my relationships. Just like the previous commitment, I have to prioritize on a situational basis. But I did come to realize that consistently prioritizing my job over my partners, much like prioritizing one partner over another, would make me lose those relationships that I also valued. This is one of the other changes in my perspective that I asked Franklin for help with as part of the goals of our budding relationship. So now I take into account my financial situation (to determine how detrimental turning down work would be), the state of my relationship, my own interest in the event, how important the event is to my partner(s), and my partners' general attitude towards my job when I decide how to prioritize any individual situation.
And it's not just about work either. I had a cat that was terminally ill for a couple of years, which caused me no end of stress and re-prioritizing my life. My cat was a dependent being who literally could not survive without my assistance. On top of that, she was a feeling being who had tied her emotional well-being (such as a cat has) to me. I took on that responsibility when I chose to adopt her. Plus, I had emotionally bonded to her just as strongly as she had bonded to me. My thoughts were constantly on her comfort and safety, and my concern for her distracted me to the point where I did not have enough mental resources to handle other responsibilities.
So I have a multitude of loved ones (and I include my job as a "loved one") that I have to allocate my time, attention, and other resources for, and this commitment is a reminder that the people who have trusted me with their vulnerability and intimacy are valuable enough to me that I should make space for them on the top tier of loved ones who get the most of my prioritization.
Finally, the review discussion about my list of commitments generated a lot of reaction to the phrase "too often". I deliberately left this phrase vague and I maintain that position after the discussion. I need to be able to remind myself that my relationships are a top priority without locking myself into some kind of prescripted schedule or definition for what "priority" means. All of my relationships are different types of relationships and each of my partners has different relationship needs. So I can't commit to a specific amount of time or specific actions that designate someone as "priority" because that amount of time or those actions could be too much or too little or not the right kind for any given person or any given moment within our relationship. After much discussion on this point, I am maintaining my phrasing of "too often" because I believe that this phrase can and should be defined individually between myself and each of my loved ones (partners, metamours, family, friends) in conversation with each of them, and it can also be somewhat fluidly defined in the moment based on what we each feel about our relationships with each other in the context of a lot of criteria, such as current needs, current life situations, current patterns, past trends, etc. I feel that leaving in a vague phrase like "too often" necessitates further conversation between me and my specific loved ones to define what that means in the context of our specific relationship, which reduces the likelihood of using this list of commitments prescriptively or contractually.
In order to compete with boys and men, I had to be more than their equal. I had to be superior. Otherwise, any potential non-male trait was proof that I wasn't their equal, and, in fact, was representative of my entire gender for why none of us were their equals. So I did not like help. Franklin once said that I was the most competitive person he knew. I didn't see it at the time. But I pitted myself against my male peers as a child and teen in athletics and grades because I had to prove that I was their equal by being better. To this day, I refrain from doing certain things that I don't think I will excel at because my competitive drive makes "losing" too uncomfortable.
But then I became poor. And I started to age. These two things combined are strikingly humbling. Because of how the economy hit my industry, I dropped below the poverty line further than I had ever been. But I had male partners who had more secure incomes. And I started having more trouble lifting and moving than I used to, as well as watching my coworkers age and, consequently, go through surgery after therapy after time-out because they were "men". By that, I mean that, as young men they did stupid macho things like trying to unload trucks singlehandedly. This didn't always result in immediate injury, but as they aged, their bodies broke down rapidly once they hit a physical peak. They got injured more easily, and injuries and near-injuries from their youth made them slower, stiffer, weaker. I saw men my own age and slightly older looking and acting like "old men" before their time. I learned to ask for help because, as I became fond of saying, I've been in this business for 25 years and I intend to stay in it for another 25 years when my coworkers had to drop out after 5, 10, 15 years in the business because they just couldn't handle the physical demands anymore.
So I learned to ask for help at work. And now I'm learning to ask for help from my partners. Somehow, it hurts my pride more to ask for help from partners. Somewhere along the line, I developed a sense of obligation - that assistance from romantic partners carried with it a form of obligation that I didn't want to incur. Sometimes that obligation was sexual ("since I bought dinner, you should put out"), sometimes it was tit-for-tat ("after all I've done for you, this is how you repay me?"), sometimes it reinforced a gender role situation within the relationship ("I'm the man, it's my job to pay for you"). When a relationship ends, if the sense of obligation is real and not me imposing cultural baggage onto my partners, that's where I'll feel the obligation the strongest. So I have developed patterns designed to reduce relationship obligation. A breakup is also where I'll feel the loss of assistance that I've come to count on, so I tend to avoid relying on anyone because I'm afraid that the assistance will be pulled away from me in a year or two when we break up and then it'll hurt more to have to re-learn my independence than if I had just done without their assistance the whole time.
But I keep maintaining that my relationships are with equal partners. So in order for that to be true, I have to let my guard down, I have to let them in, and I have to be able to accept their assistance. Sometimes I need help and that's what partners are there for - to help and support in times of need. Sometimes it's my partners who need to help me because that's how they express their love and how they feel loved, and it has nothing to do with my abilities. My relationships are not all about me, they're about building something together. I need to remind myself that part of building something together often includes mutual support and that, if there is no obligation attached, being helped feels nice. So that's what this commitment is about.
“Of course I’ll hurt you. Of course you’ll hurt me. Of course we will hurt each other. But this is the very condition of existence. To become spring, means accepting the risk of winter. To become presence, means accepting the risk of absence.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little PrinceYou see, Shelly and I had a very difficult experience together. It wasn't the same experience, and I rather think that she got the worst of it by a long shot. I also don't think we quite realized that we were in the experience together. In fact, we started out the experience at odds with each other. I first wrote this commitment to do with avoiding hurt. But conversation with Shelly changed my perspective. Our experience had taught us both, but it really reinforced in her particularly, that sometimes the only available options to us will lead directly to hurting our loved ones. Sometimes, for our own safety, we may have to do something that will cause hurt, and we will have to do it knowing that it will cause hurt because the alternative is to further hurt ourselves.
I balked at this perspective. I had a previous relationship with someone who routinely did things that hurt me because he placed a higher value on meeting his own desires than on choosing to abstain in order to refrain from causing hurt. I hated the feeling that my partner was more invested in experiencing something that he wanted to experience than he was in considering how much pain his experience would cause me. I considered it a fundamentally selfish point of view. But my shared experience with Shelly taught me the darker, evil twin of this point of view. It's possible to use someone's desire to avoid causing you pain as a form of emotional blackmail to prevent them from doing what is necessary for their own emotional or physical health.
Shelly resisted my original wording because she found herself in a terrible position. She found herself in the position of needing to make a choice for her own safety that she knew would cause pain to someone she loved. I slowly came to connect with Shelly's position because I had a partner who looked at my decision to do something for my own good that would result in his pain and responded "how could you hurt me, you evil monster?!" I hesitate to say "cause him pain" because, in my case, much of what hurt him wasn't directly aimed at him. What I needed to do for me were things that were about me and had no direct effect on him, only indirect, but that he twisted into somehow being all about him. Even things that I hadn't actually done but just contemplated doing, the very act of considering them hurt him. I had the potential opportunity to have a sexual experience once that I believed was unlikely but still possible that I really felt was something I needed to experience for my own emotional gratification and my own self-identity. It's a long story why I felt this one experience was so important, but it was. Maybe I'll tell that story sometime. I recognized that it would be discomforting for him and I acknowledged that I would be uncomfortable if our positions were reversed. So, just discussing the situation hypothetically, I tried to show him that I was on his side (see the relevant point above) by acknowledging his concern and being willing to compromise in order to assuage his concern.
For many people, when we have concerns about our loved ones, we just want to be heard. Many times, all we need is for our loved ones to acknowledge that they hear us, really hear us, and we feel better. We feel like a team. But not in this case. In this case, being willing to say "I hear your concerns, I think they are valid, I've already considered your feelings and agree that the likely reaction would be totally appropriate and I accept that reaction as a consequence for my choice" didn't result in relief at being heard and a willingness to bend with me towards a compromise. Instead, what he heard was "yep, I know this will destroy you because I've already thought about it and I'm going to do it anyway with full forethought because I don't care if it hurts you." Instead, my acknowledgement of his concerns was to make my position even worse because I couldn't even use ignorance as an excuse for hurting him. In his mind, what I had proposed to do was now deliberately stab him in the back with intention and malice. Remember, this was all about something that was only hypothetical at the time and, I thought, pretty unlikely although there was a non-zero chance it could happen. I was just discussing the possibility because, as my point above states, I wanted to address it before it became too big to handle. I felt that addressing it before there was any emotional investment in the outcome would result in a more rational, easy-to-tackle decision. I wanted to work it out when I didn't have the possibility hanging over me and the pull of a missed opportunity influencing my position. But even this became a deliberate attack on him.
But I really didn't want to rewrite this commitment in such a way that acknowledging the fact that we would inevitably cause our loved ones harm would leave the door open for the opposite to happen - that which I experienced with the other ex who seemed to blithely go about doing things without concern for how they affected me simply because he wanted to do them. I didn't want to leave room for a partner to read my list of commitments, then go off and do something hurtful, knowingly hurtful, and come back and say "well you gave yourself an out to hurting me like this, so I'm only doing what you want to do to me!"
So I'm trying to limit the ways in which I hurt my loved ones. I want to limit those ways to only unintentional harm, accidental harm, but my experience with Shelly and my observations of her experience with that situation forces me to leave myself a back door where I might have to hurt someone and do so knowingly, for my own health and for the good of the relationship itself. To leave that door open, I have specified that actions with the goal or intention of causing harm are to be avoided when possible. I don't want to hurt my loved ones, but if my intention is for some greater good or need, and harm is the consequence and not the intent, then even if I am aware of the potential to harm, I believe this serves the conflicting goals of needing to do for myself what is necessary and still not trampling over my loved ones on a selfish ride of personal desires. I need to somehow simultaneously prioritize my right to do things that I need to do, being considerate and compassionate towards my partners and how my actions affect them, and not demonizing myself whether I am able to foresee the consequences or am unable to see the consequences. And I need to do it in a way that a partner reading this can't rules-lawyer his way into excusing or justifying his disregard for me. I feel that this wording is the closest I have come to achieving all those conflicting goals.
Dr. Gary Chapman, of the Love Languages books, says that it's important to tell our partners how best to love us. We need roadmaps and instructions on how to best love each other. That's what my entire Me Manual tag is for - an instruction manual for how best to love and understand me. But even telling my partners about my expectations won't work if I'm not clear about my expectations to myself. Clear communication starts with clear thoughts. In order to clearly communicate my expectations, I need to know what my expectations even are. I am committed to practicing introspection so that I can understand myself and my expectations, so that I can further communicate those expectations to my partners so that those expectations get met whenever possible.
The summary is this: "Courage is making decisions that take you closer to what you want, or to the person you want to be, even when you're scared." Courage is a virtue and life rewards those who move in the direction of greater courage. Honesty, in most situations but particularly in romantic relationships, is usually the best method for displaying courage as well as for building intimacy in relationships. But honesty without compassion is often nothing more than cruelty. Framing the discussion as honesty vs. "little white lies" is a distraction. The real discussion is between compassion vs. cruelty because both honesty and lying can be either. Honesty can be tempered by compassion, which serves the goal usually offered by those supporting the "little white lie" side ("I don't want to hurt her, so I'll just tell her a nice little white lie that will make her feel better") without sidestepping the path of greatest courage. I'm setting my bar high to strive for the path of greatest courage, which requires me to be honest in my relationships, but without using my commitment to honesty as a blunt object with which to beat my partners over the head. I am setting a goal for myself that I can and will be both honest and kind in my romantic relationships to the best of my ability.
In the commitment about refraining from hurting my partners, I discussed a situation that Shelly and I went through separately but together. That story applies here too. That was a situation where, even though Shelly and I both want to build a poly family, sometimes desperately need that family, we discovered just how dangerous desperation for family can be. We each learned the price of family obligation. We each learned that when the relationship is too important, it becomes coercive. It becomes coercive when any member feels that they can't leave, that their individuality and their individual needs are less important than maintaining the group itself. I referenced this point in a previous post, which further linked to Shelly's article on this very subject. This kind of coercion sneaks up on you even when you think you're on the lookout for it. With all my talk of autonomy and the new poly term "solo poly" and independence, I still didn't see it coming.
One very effective trait of abusers is isolation. An abuser isolates his victims from friends and family, from anyone who might be able to see what's going on and who might have enough pull on the victim to give them the strength or motivation to leave. Something I never even considered before was that this tactic can also be used effectively from within a family to keep a family together through force as well. That sounds counter-intuitive - isolating a victim from family in order to bind a family together. It's very subtle. What you do, is you make the promise of a relationship, or a family, so desirable that the other person feels afraid to leave (the other person can give you a head start by desiring that family fantasy before they even meet you); that being without this family or this relationship is a terrible option they can't even consider. Then you turn everything that they do into them attacking and hurting the family group or relationship, even if what they do is for their own emotional or physical health or has nothing to do with the family. When everything they do somehow manages to hurt everyone else in the group - the group that they desperately need to belong to - it drives a wedge between that person and the rest of the group. Soon, communication between the individual and the others in the group dries up because the individual feels a constant wash of disapproval. If you can orchestrate this so that the disapproval is coming through you and not the other people directly (because you're the one who said everyone else is mad, not them), and direct communication starts to become affected, then eventually it doesn't even have to be true and the group starts to blame the widening rift on the individual for pulling away because they're not aware that the individual is pulling away because they think the group has positioned themselves in an us vs. them struggle. So eventually, the individual becomes too afraid to do anything for themselves or for their own good because the consequence is losing the relationship. The individual loses their agency and subsumes their autonomy into the group. This makes the relationship more important than the individuals.
I still very much want a close-knit family style of poly. But I also still very strongly believe that one does not have to lose one's individuality to the group. I mentioned this very concept way up with the commitment to respecting my partners' life choices. But this one is less about focusing on my ability to let go of my attachment to my partners' decisions and more of a step back and a look at the bigger picture. This is an acknowledgement that there are two conflicting goals in my relationships - maintaining individuality and autonomy vs. building family. I believe that most of the time, in healthy relationships, these are not directly in conflict and both can be achieved simultaneously. But sometimes, they will come to a head and conflict. I am establishing a baseline for myself that, in the event of a conflict of these two goals, the one that serves the individual must be given more weight right out of the starting gate. Because if the individuals' happiness is not being served, I believe that the health of the relationship cannot be served either. The latter requires the former, but not necessarily vice versa. So the former must come first, and the latter will follow automatically as a result, or it will end in service of the former.
A more successful strategy than trying to rule away something like that is to take all reasonable precautions (with "reasonable" being defined by everyone involved, not just the "primary couple") and to also discuss contingency plans and harm reduction. A more successful strategy is to realize that sometimes shit just happens and sometimes Game Changers come along and change the game. Therefore, we can't afford to pretend like we have control over our future. We have some, but not ultimate control. We need to accept that the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry. If we go into our relationships with that as our premise, we are better equipped to deal with change when it happens. When it happens. Change is often unexpected, and we can't expect the unexpected, pretty much by definition. But we can expect that the unexpected will probably happen at some point even if we can't predict what form it will take.
So rather than freaking out about it, or feeling betrayed even though change was inevitable, I can accept that change was bound to come along and fuck things up sooner or later and just plan to change the plans. This is how my J-ness (INTJ on the Meyers-Briggs scale) handles P people - how a schedule-oriented person can deal with spontaneous people. I put on my schedule that this is Anything Can Happen Time. Now it's on the schedule, it's part of the plan. I am committing myself to attempting to address contingency plans beforehand for those scenarios we can think up (like an accidental pregnancy) and immediately afterwards both for those scenarios we couldn't think up until they happened as well as those scenarios we did think up but now someone wants to change the predetermined plan, because Game Changers happen. This is especially important no matter which direction the change comes from. I might want something different than I did at the beginning of a relationship, or my partner might want something different. Either way, I need to be willing to consider alternate options. I want to be more committed to considering alternatives and backup plans than I am to any given plan, so that I can weather change with more grace and dignity than I have in the past.
Just to make sure that metaphor was perfectly clear, I am reminding myself here that there are more than two states for romantic relationships - together or broken up. I have already established that I can accept a variety of relationship configurations and that I do not want to prescript my relationships. So here I am establishing that I will not let my relationship descriptions turn prescriptive once we get in them. If, some time into a relationship, one or the other (or both) of us decides that our life needs to look different than it currently does, I am reminding myself that it may be possible to simply readjust our relationship to look different too. When I first started dating Franklin, we lived 3 miles away from each other. Then he moved to Gainesville. Then I moved to Orlando. Then he moved to Atlanta. Then he moved to Portland. If either of us had insisted that our relationship was a local relationship and could only be a local relationship, it would have ended with the first move to Gainesville a mere year or two into it. Instead, what I got was a long-distance relationship that has, as of this post, lasted a decade, brought me valuable life lessons, been a source of joy and comfort, taught me how to become the person I wanted to be, and introduced me to the people I consider my intentional family and those I feel the most connected to anywhere in the world (with the exception of my best friend, who I met through another partner). When things change, I do not need to automatically reach for the breakup card. When things change, I can assess if we can change with it. The relationship may not be what we originally hoped it would be, but then again, it might be something just as valuable or more that we never anticipated if we give it room to just be.
I am talking about going through the breakup and post-breakup process with compassion and empathy for how my actions affect my ex as well as with care and consideration for my own well-being, with the most effort possible in being my best self. This might take a variety of different forms because each breakup, like each relationship that precedes it, is unique and individual. Sometimes it's possible to remain friends. Sometimes that friendship is even more emotionally intimate than the relationship was. Sometimes there has to be a recovery period of no contact before a friendship can be attempted. Sometimes a cool acquaintanceship is the best we can hope for. And, yes, sometimes there needs to be a complete break. This commitment is to remind me to take the kindest route possible for the given circumstances, assuming there is no escape from abuse or harm. Taking the kindest route possible leads automatically to the most friendly post-breakup structure possible, under the given circumstances.
I've discovered that, for every relationship where I did the breaking up, a post-breakup friendship was possible, but for every relationship where I was broken up with, a post-breakup was not possible. Going over the details of each one, this tells me that I generally do well enough at being compassionate that my former partners are interested in building a friendship and that many other people do poor enough that the hurt feelings caused during the breakup process is enough to prevent a post-breakup friendship. But I can always do better, and this is a reminder to me to continue to work on being my best self even during breakups. For more details on this, see my Breaking Up workshop.
My metamour's lesson was a little different. She expected herself to be the Perfect Poly Partner, and every time she failed or faltered, she heaped guilt and self-doubt on top of whatever other issue she was having. So she punished herself for failing and then she punished herself for not having gotten it right the first time, which led to this spiral of shame and recrimination that caused her to continue to fail (or, as she puts it, flail) in her relationships. Every time she faltered in being the Perfect Poly Partner, she became more determined to do it "right", until she ended up sacrificing herself on the alter of this noble ideal of perfection. In the process of chasing after perfection, she lost herself. She couldn't back away from a toxic relationship because failure and perfection became too tied up in her own self-worth. She couldn't even see the toxicity for what it was, because she was convinced that she had to be perfect, and if she was just perfect, she could make this work.
I don't like to admit when I'm wrong. I don't like to make mistakes. I need to give myself permission to have issues, to make mistakes, to be wrong, to fuck up occasionally. And I need to give my partners that same permission. I need to build relationships that can flex and bend and accommodate the occasional screw-up and not just throw the entire relationship into the dumpster the moment someone does something stupid. There needs to be some room for error, to be human. We can work on those contingency plans and harm reduction plans together.
These are all subjective values and highly dependent upon the individuals involved, their preferences, the context, and the moment. If we both feel that the good outweighs the bad, then the bad should be worked with, factored in like a necessary expense. But if one or both of us start to feel that the bad outweighs the good, for however we're defining "good", "bad", and "outweighs", then no more freedom and accommodation needs to be given and we should start considering one of those alternate options, including breaking up if no other alternates can solve the problem. But before that point, this kind of accommodation can help us prevent needing to reach for that final solution.
So these are the commitments I'm making to myself. I'm feeling pretty good about them. One of the things that I've learned from Franklin is what kind of relationships are possible if I don't settle for what's available. Especially when I compare the kinds of relationships that are often offered to me. I find myself less and less likely to settle anymore. He sets a high bar. He makes me want to be my best self. I feel that living up to these commitments more often than not are how I can be my best self in my relationships. And I believe that, by being my best self, as outlined here, I will not only offer the best version of me possible to my partners, but that I will be offered the same in return because these commitments help me to structure my relationships in ways that only those who can live up to these standards would make the cut - in effect, this helps me make better partner selections, and better partners will be more likely to offer the best version of themselves possible to me.
I'm sure I'll revisit these points again in the future, and probably discuss some of them in more detail in their own posts on my blog. But I really wanted to address them all in a single location that could be referenced when the poster / graphic itself is shared.
*This is different from one person seeing another person's personal document and finding fault or flaw with the execution even for the other person and commenting. For example, seeing that someone doesn't like hitchhiking and trying to talk them into it vs. seeing someone's racist comments and trying to explain why it's wrong to make those comments.
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