“Boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “husband,” and “wife,” are really the only labels that we grow up learning a pseudo-intuitive meaning for in our culture. Of course, as it turns out, everybody’s definitions are different for those terms, so they’re nowhere near as helpful as we fantasize they are. That is, we think we know what they mean, but in reality, everyone has highly individualized notions, expectations, boundaries, and “meanings of relationships.”
Even in monogamous world, those labels have proven spectacularly inadequate. Young people tend to participate in a hook-up culture these days, which deliberately blurs the lines between “in” and “not in” a relationship. Even older friends of mine who have tried to date monogamously seem to have found that dating in our culture has become—to use sociological jargon–anomic. That’s a fancy way of saying that nobody knows what the hell the rules are anymore, and that dating tends to be accompanied by a lot of angst and uncertainty partly because the rules are so vague.
But as crazy as things are in MonoWorld, they’re a helluva lot more complicated over here in PolyWorld.
There are two basic types of polyamory that I’ve discovered: hierarchical poly and anarchical poly. Hierarchical polys try to simplify the mad complexities of poly life by labeling relationships and dynamics like crazy: husbands, boyfriends, friend with benefits, play partners, lovers… and then often surreptitiously layer labels like “primary,” “secondary,” and very occasionally “tertiary” on top of those (how often do you hear someone introduce someone with, “This is Beth, my secondary”?). Anarchical polys, on the other hand, try to disengage from the labels altogether and often pretend like there’s no real prioritizations happening between and among their relationships. They tend to eschew relationship labels and titles altogether, frequently just introducing people with the incredibly nebulous title “partner.”
For several years, I’ve been practicing my own form of pseudo-anarchical polyamory with a husband/primary and a collection of my own “partners.” Unfortunately, in spite of my current lifestyle, I don’t think that anarchical poly is my native relationship language. I like my world ordered and precise and I reeeeeeally like security and stability. All of these preferences are antithetical to the way that anarchical poly functions. And yet, I find that anarchical poly has seemed to be the best way to meet my own and my partners’ wants and desires for quite some time. The thing I find myself questioning regularly is does it meet my needs? How valuable is the security of a label?
Do you actually get more from someone because he calls you his “girlfriend”? There might be peace of mind in the label and the feeling of security that comes with it, but what does it ultimately really provide? If someone does all the things you expect a boyfriend to do, does it matter if you call him your boyfriend? Obviously, it matters to me on some level or I wouldn’t be writing this. But that doesn’t mean that it should matter.
The thing is, when you have a bad day, and you doubt someone’s feelings for you, the relationship titles give you something to fall back on. Sure, she got busy and didn’t text you this morning, but she’s still your girlfriend. At the same time, the titles can be expectation traps: it’s okay if your “play partner” didn’t text you, but it’s not okay if your “girlfriend” didn’t. In the end, what do those labels really give you except an illusion of stability and security?
I can get over the vocabulary awkwardness; but the real biggest challenges of anarchical poly life for me are 1. That it feels impossible to plan for the future more than two weeks from now (who knows what the “relationship” will look like in a month? Can we take for granted that we’ll spend time together at x event? How do we decide who’s staying with whom? Am I doing this wrong if I assume I’m staying with you?). And 2. That it feels so fucking hard to say “I love you” and have it mean the same thing to the person I’m saying it to that it means to me. At the point where you’ve abandoned all the standard social norms of relationships entirely, it’s like you need to invent a completely new vocabulary just to explain the way you feel about someone. Part of me imagines having this stupidly awkward conversation that goes something like, “I have very deep and intense feelings for you that in no way resemble the ones I have for my husband, and I would never under any circumstances consider living with you for more than a few days at a time, but I care greatly about your happiness, I miss you a lot when you’re not around, and I think being with you greatly enriches my life, so I think that means I love you.” Are you allowed to say that to someone?
In some ways, anarchical polyamory feels like a spectacularly immature way to do relationships—as if we’re bundles of hormones who are terrified of commitment because it might limit the number of people we get to fuck. In other ways, it seems extremely sophisticated and vastly more realistic than any other relationship system I can imagine. It acknowledges the ever-changing nature of humans and their relationship needs, and most importantly, I think it takes into account a truth which our society mostly just doesn’t get: love is contextual. Love—even romantic love—is absolutely not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and that was the truth which polyamory was supposed to encompass all along. You should take for granted that I don’t love you like I love my husband, because that just wouldn’t make sense anyway. You and I are what we are, and what we are is sexy and powerful and loving and special; trying to find a fetlife box to check to legitimate it in the eyes of other people or ourselves probably won’t make us even a little bit happier, and I seriously doubt that it will extend the longevity of our relationship by a day, and stressing about it is likely to shorten the length of the relationship considerably.
That sounds true, at least.