This year’s Guelph Sexuality Conference was absolutely amazing, friends! If you have never attended, you really must make a point of visiting the lovely University of Guelph for this event next year. Check out #UoGSexConf and follow @UofGSexConf on Twitter and FaceBook to see many of the highlights and get a taste of the excellent workshops that went down. And I’ll be sure to let y’all know when we open up for presentation proposals, but you can also find out at both of those accounts.
This was the first conference at which I ever presented (2004 & 2006), and I could have never guessed that one day I would be on the planning committee. This year not only did I help plan the event, but I also served as the conference’s first (as far as we know) Active Listener. I was available throughout the event to help folks process, listen, note any concerns, and other similar duties. It was an honour and privilege to be able to have such important conversations with attendees throughout the event!
But before all of that, I helped wrap up the opening plenary panel with a personal story and reflections on coming out as being poly. While this hasn’t exactly been a secret within certain social circles of mine, I wasn’t just reflecting on being non-monogamous. I was coming out on the professional level right then and there, with friends, coworkers, and my boss in the audience. Plus I also included my gender and sex queer identities. The many levels of coming out never stop for some of us, eh?
The entire panel was excellent and it was thrilling to be among such amazing speakers and professionals. Thankfully, it was taped and will be placed on the Guelph Sexuality Conference website once it’s edited and uploaded. Until then, here is my transcript.
In 2005 I married my partner of 4 years in Vermont, one of only 2 or 3 places in the USSat the time where queer people could get married. We were unwilling to get married anywhere with heteronormist marriage laws; this was important to us. I had proposed to him 4 months earlier, and we had our homemade ceremony by a big rock in the woods with a justice of the peace, and our parents and step-parents. We used a poem from Virginia Satir for our vows, and I thought you might enjoy it if I read it to you:
How I want to meet you
I want to love you without clutching,
Appreciate you without judging,
Join you without invading,
Invite you without demanding,
Leave you without guilt,
Criticize you without blaming,
And help you without insulting.
If I can have
the same from you,
then we can truly meet and
enrich each other.
That relationship remains the best commitment I ever made.
The second best happened 7 years later. At the end of 2012 I realized a lifelong dream by moving here, to Canada, to work for the University of Guelph and teach student-therapists learning Couple and Family Therapy. The transition has been both beautiful and challenging, and over time the beautiful parts have become the majority. My friends, family, and coworkers knew such a transition would be hard at times, and often asked how I was doing. The one thing I didn’t feel I could confide was what it was like to grieve leaving behind every intimate partner save my spouse. Few people are ready to hear a very happily married person talk about how much they miss their lovers.
When I do mention it outside of certain circles, I’ve learned to do my best to make it comfortable for others. I keep it short of details; it’s too real if I mention their names much less how much I miss her no-nonsense way of flirting or how he was able to connect more deeply with me when he finally fell in love …with someone else. I rarely say exactly when we saw each other, or if we ever will again. That also makes it too real. And I definitely don’t talk about how deeper emotional and physical intimacy with others has made both my spouse, who I call my primary, and I much happier, healthier, more whole people in our relationship with each other. It’s not that it becomes too real then, it’s that the listener begins to look at me with pity in their eyes. Clearly my 9 years of marriage, which is 13 years if you count dating, is a sham and I just can’t admit it yet. There is either monogamy or there is cheating and breaking up, according to that world view.
I’ve been told by folks who assume we are monogamous that I have the kind of marriage that some of my friends dream about, and for us it takes a community to raise a relationship.
Last year I slipped up during a grant writing meeting, and instead of saying “my partner” I said “my primary.” I tried to play it cool for the rest of the meeting, as though I had not just breached the carefully maintained division between my work life and a very select social circle within my personal life. But I was scared for weeks. What will people think knowing that someone who teaches and researchers in a field dedicated to romantic dyads feels closest to the main love of her life when they’re sharing what they are learning from being in additional relationships? Did I just lose their respect, professionally and personally? I didn’t dare ask them. I just waited and enjoyed the sweet surprise of nothing changing. And so I allowed the word to slip two or three more times just to see what would happen. To my relief I have found myself in the very privileged position of still being ok…for now…a far as I can tell.
And when someone asked if anyone knew of a member of a poly relationship that was established and going strong, I volunteered for this panel.
I guess I will know if this was a good risk to take one soon enough as my boss is in this audience today. I hope my bet pays off that it’s better to say it here and now than to worry about what would happen if I didn’t.
Families take a multitude of shapes and forms. When it comes to intimacy, both emotional and physical, there are far more options than monogamy and cheating. For us, my primary and I, we do not expect to be each other’s everything. Sometimes in some ways, we aren’t even each other’s favorite thing. And that allows us to relax and rejoice in the ways in which we are perfect together, without fretting so much about the ways in which we are fantastic yet very different.
What would respectful affirmation look like? An end to the million everyday ways in which 2 is considered better than 1 or 3, 4, 5, or more. No more forms with spots for only 2 partners of certain genders, no more doctors who assume that married people shouldn’t need STI testing. There would be more room to see more than two people holding hands, perhaps with babies in the middle. There would be permission to love and love and love and be healthy and full of joy with so much love that it spills out of each relationship and fills the others with excitement and laughter and wholeness.
There would be permission to find and create what really makes a person their healthiest and happiest, instead of complying to what is supposed to work for everyone. In that desire to cherish our authentic selves within a supportive and kind environment, I suspect we all have a great deal in common in this room. I don’t want you to be poly any more than I want you to be monogamous or single. I just want you to be able to be happy being you, while I am happy being me, and while we are happy for each other.
But I also encourage us to consider the value of being unhappy about falling on our faces, the importance of trying something that doesn’t work, things that hurt when they work, and how we can support each other in that.
Let me be clear in saying that I cannot possibly represent or speak for all of the many ways in which relationships can be open. I’m only speaking for me, and a little for my primary, with their permission. It saddens me greatly when I overhear conversations about how only monogamy can work, because a poly relationship (or one part of a poly relationship) ended in a breakup. By this definition of success, we would have no relationship options or even singlehood as an option. But thank goodness relationships end! Think of the first person you ever dated – was that person the best relationship decision you ever made? Mine, for the record, is now a catholic priest, so I’m probably safe in saying that they wanted to go in a different direction than I did.
I started this talk by saying the safe things: I’ve been with my primary for a long time and I love love. But what if our relationship ended? Did that mean we made a mistake? That I was a fool? What if one of us left the other for one of our other partners? Did we ask for heartbreak?
Most break-ups are tough, but as one of my girlfriends used to say: there are only 3 options. You break up, you’re together forever, or somebody ceases to be. Thank goodness for the first option! If my relationship with my sweetie ended it would hurt very much, but I suspect I would eventually see that as part of my journey as a poly person. I hope others would feel the same about my path.
And what of jealousy and pain? Is it ok to hurt like that in a relationship, in a way that is related to a partner? Again, I can only speak for myself. Yes, we both feel pain around facing jealousy, fears, doubts, and more. I would be worried if we didn’t. But I learned over time that there is a difference between hurt and harm. I gave up my fantasies of being someone’s everything, of having some kind of assumed ownership of their body and of someone owning my rights to mine. I shrugged off my romanticized notion that only one person can make me truly happy, and that I must figure out how to do the same for them in every possible way. I learned that I can build a stable home without giving up the connection I seek with more than one. I learned that a relationship can be based on, and defined by, things more complex than sexual exclusivity. I learned that jealousy is often a sign of a place in my life where I can grow, learn to communicate better, or discover what I need to be my best me. I learned how important is to keep figuring out what I need to function and feel best, how to communicate that, and how to nurture it in a multitude of ways without necessarily holding one person accountable for giving it to me.
For me, monogamy is too closed, too tight, too restrictive, too presumptive. For others, being open is too frightening, too risky, too loose, too devil-may-care, too hedonistic. There is room for both those views and many more. But neither of us is proving our way wrong if we break up with somebody, or stay single, or hurt in healthy ways. Sometimes growing is hard. Neither open relationships nor closed are easy.
But there is an especially political, activist aspect to being open, whether I like it or not. It is an undeniably powerful statement in our culture when a fat, nerdy, gender and sex queer, married person is having a lot of great sex with a lot of great people and decides mention it into a microphone. Hello! While that edginess is sometimes exciting, I look forward to a day when just being me isn’t such a political act. And if I feel exhausted by the political nature of being me, with all of my privileges, then there is a huge amount of work for all of us to do before we even get around to how tired I am.
Perhaps a helpful step is questioning what we have learned about what is normal and healthy, and what we have learned about our roles in determining and enforcing that. In a recent conversation with Charlie Glickman, he brought up a great point that I would like to share with his permission. As helping, healing, and health professionals we use our informed intuition as one of our most valuable tools. However, it can be difficult to tell the difference between something that set off that informed intuition and something that has triggered a bias, especially around delicate topics such as bodies, sex, relationships, and gender. How can we make better distinctions between our biases and intuition, and how might that change us both personally and professionally?
As a follow-up, many friends, co-workers, acquaintances, and people I was just meeting came up to thank me for my vulnerability during my talk.
And my boss gave me a hug.