Merry Christmas! What a year it's been for Black & Poly. Here's a roundup of what we've seen from black and polyamorous family this year.
Ruby Bouie Johnson responds to recent coverage of polyamory in the national news.
I’ve had several weeks to reflect on the recent coverage of polyamory in a few national media outlets, ranging from the very conservative to the center-left. Though the presentation and tone varied between them, they all managed to be grossly misinformed about the philosophy and practice of polyamory and consensual non-monogamy. Over the last 14 years in direct clinical practice, and the last 3 years in private practice, I can say with confidence that folks who come into my office for relationship therapy, love and care for each other. These individuals seek therapy to educate themselves, mediate their conflicts, and establish agreements to move forward within their relationships, whether they are in a monogamous relationship or a polyamorous relationship or anything else on the relationship continuum.
Let’s concisely dispel the myths.
1. Polyamory is not polygamy.
2. Polyamory is not polyfuckery.
3. Polyamory is not about subjugating monogamy.
4. Comparing polyamory to monogamy and monogamy to polyamory leads to frustration and insult.
5. Qualifying “natural” or “normal” to a persons’ way of loving, living, and being is bullshit.
6. Polyamory is not unnatural, barbaric, or savage.
7. Polyamory does not subjugate or oppress women.
Furthermore, what I read is highly unrealistic about how open relationships work in the real world. What I read was stories of irresponsible remedies to a marriage or partnership that was disconnected. These were stories of infidelity that segue into an open relationship. This is an infrequent way for healthy polyamarous relationships to begin. One of the core tenants of open relationships is consent; real consent, not “apology after the fact”. Clinically, I work with couples that have begun a non-monogamous relationship dynamic in an attempt to recover from an infidelity. The lack of confidence resulting from the deceit and secrecy often disrupts the relationship. In my experience a significant majority of these relationships have irreparable damage. This is not because polyamorous or non-monogamous relationships are unstable, but because deceit and secrecy are highly destabilizing to any relationship, whether it is a monogamous relationship or not.
Let me share with you some ways that healthy more-than-two relationships actually function.
1. Communication, Communication, Communication. Let me be clear, it’s not talking at the other person. It’s about being present, open, and willing to understand the wants, needs, and desires of the other.
2. The ability to negotiate. Negotiation is a skill and art. One must have a range of skills that they are bringing to the table. Some include: trust that the other person has their best interests at heart; genuine expression of needs; lastly, and for me this is the most important, a shared meaning of the end goal.
3. Commitment. Commitment is not a simple commitment to the other person; it’s a commitment to all that are involved within the relationship network. The commitment to be safe, responsible, and honor agreements.
4. Each person must recognize when they need to nurture their relationship with their own selves. For example, when someone starts to identify irritability and short-temperedness in themselves, they must check themselves before they wreck themselves.
5. It’s important to understand that this is about not about accommodating a perceived need for “equal sharing”, it’s about fulfilling the needs of everyone involved, which are never all going to be the same.
As I read this list, these suggestions for best practices with healthy relationships are applicable to lovers, friends, family, coworkers, etc. It’s not a mystery how to make relationships work best. These principles apply to and yield healthy polyamorous relationships just as much as they apply to and yield healthy monogamous relationships. As long as we treat each other with dignity and worth, let’s get it on, baby.
This post originally appeared on Huffington Post.
How Representation Works…or Doesn’t
A Follow Up
In the early afternoon of Thursday May 11th, I got an email from a colleague. First, she congratulated me on my upcoming book about the intersection of race and polyamory, then she congratulated me on my appearance in the New York Times. The piece, Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage?, had just been published that morning. The congrats were both a friendly greeting and a way to lead into the real content of the email while also saying, “I see you there, Kev. Doing big things.”
The true purpose of the email was to ask if I’d be interested in taking part in a round table about family and parenting. Eventually, I would respond that I was indeed interested. But before I had a chance to even read that email, I received a second one from the same colleague. Delivered only eleven minutes after the first, it simply read “Oh my gosh, Kevin! I just read the article. You must be upset. I’m so sorry!” While this wasn’t the way my day started, it pretty much encapsulated how the whole day went. Boundless excitement followed quickly by frustrating disappointment.
My wife and I contributed to Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage? because our names were thrown into consideration by Mark A. Michaels and Patricia Johnson, the authors of Designer Relationships: A Guide to Happy Monogamy, Positive Polyamory, and Optimistic Open Relationships. Mark and Patricia are familiar with the impact nonmonogamy has on our family and our work regarding race and polyamory. Logically, they thought we’d offer some insightful perspective to such a piece. And what a mainstream piece! I’d be lying if I said that hadn’t factored into my decision to participate. My Poly Role Models blog, while a fairly popular free resource, couldn’t hope to hit the broadcast range of even the lowliest New York Times article. An increased readership could help countless people find their way to and through ethical non-monogamy. Unfortunately, any perspective I could add or range I could reach is buried beneath a sad story of floundering marriages. To be clear, the sad story of floundering marriages are both valid and valuable. My work definitely covers that as well. But it covers more than that…and therein lies the problem.
Is an Open Marriage a Happier Marriage? is predominantly the story of a married couple, Elizabeth and Daniel, who have grown dissatisfied in their lives together. Their mismatched libidos create an unbearable strain on what was otherwise a happy union. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you understand. Sexual incompatibility is such a weighty factor that it can severely hamper strong relationships; even if it’s the sole stressor. In response to the growing displeasure, Daniel researched ethical non-monogamy and discussed it with his wife. What followed was not ethical non-monogamy.
Elizabeth shot the idea down. Only to find romance with a new fellow anyway. First, behind her husband’s back, then to his face without his willful participation…despite his pain. The guy Elizabeth took up with? He was also unhappily married and cheating on his spouse. He didn’t even have the benefit of an unresolved conversation about the vague possibility of opening his marriage to use as a justification. Look, I’m not judging. Unreasonable expectations of exclusivity, in the face of incompatible sex drives, need to be discussed. Partners that come to ethical non-monogamy by way of infidelity needs to be discussed. These are already being discussed. In fact, the idea that ethical and consensual non-monogamy are just the product of unhappy marriages is already the predominant narrative. We’ve heard these stories before. They get pushed out to mainstream media every few months and frankly it’s gotten boring.
It’s clear that Susan Dominus has a specific story that she is trying to tell. But I question who that really serves. The non-monogamous newcomers, who don’t fit this couple-centric view, won’t find any love here. In this article, they are either outsiders or at the whim of a shaky marriage that views them as a crutch. Even those who do fit in the coupled model, on display here, don’t have much to look forward to. The stable and happy couples featured are virtually voiceless in this article. What little speech we’re given is limited to seemingly reluctant acceptance of the situation we’ve found ourselves in.
The name of the article challenges the traditional views on marriage with the idea of a happier alternative. So, where was that? I know you’re not supposed to read the comments section, but I did. What I found was dozens of people remarking about how unhappy people are in open marriages… how easy it is to spot which partner is into it and which is just going along with it… how it’s all just about finding excuses to cheat. That’s the story these readers came into this article believing. With all of it’s sad photos and stories of even sadder partnerships, those readers are left with a pretty solid confirmation of their pre-established attitudes. For those with lived experience inside of ethical non-monogamy, we are left with yet another narrowed view on a life we know to be both varied and vibrant.
As someone who provides a platform for dozens of true accounts of ethical non-monogamy, I’ve learned that each one resonates with those who need to find themselves and their experiences validated. Obviously, you can’t tell every story in a single article but then why gather a wealth of resources that serve to expand the perspective? Authors like Eve Rickert, Franklin Veaux, Patricia Johnson, and Mark Michaels were all consulted and left out. Twelve thousand words are a lot of space to flesh out an idea. Especially with tons of time and energy spent on taking photos of the whole shebang. With the bulk of the content focused on unphotographed people using aliases, why were our names and faces used… only to ignore our observations?
Now, I’m not flat out saying that my wife and I are only included as token people of color. I am challenging anyone to show me what the difference would be if we were. Our voices are mostly unused, but our faces are pretty prominent in a photo that shocked the people in our lives. One friend said it is the saddest they’ve ever seen either of us look. Another said that, without context, they would’ve believed all of the photos to be from a story about divorce. A visual storyline to match the narrative of non-exclusive but unsatisfying marriages.
In the case of sexuality, the article is almost devoid of mentions… except in regard to the single gay couple, Logan and Robert. Though there was valuable insight in the bit of text dedicated to their perspective, their voices were mostly left out as well. In an article that read as extremely heteronormative, there were no occurrences of the words “lesbian”, “bisexual”, “pansexual”, “queer”, or “trans”. There were six mentions of the word “gay”. Five in a single paragraph containing a reference to gay advice columnist Dan Savage and the two sentences from one of that couple’s husbands. The sixth “gay” is some dude’s name. Again, maybe Logan and Robert are not included as token LGBT representation. But how would it have looked differently otherwise?
What we’re missing is proper representation. Better representation. At least better than having our identities used as a prop to tell a story that doesn’t see us or accurately reflect us. At least better than an edgy title that doesn’t even bother to get out of it’s own way. By which I mean, letting a story write itself with the pieces you put together. A great example of which would be Daniel Krieger’s Polyamorous People feature for Narratively’s People of Interest series. In which, Krieger trusted his subjects to be both interesting and honest without trying to force either. The results are a much wider set of experiences, along a broader range of personal identities, done in roughly a quarter of the word count.
The ideal solution to any of our image problems is simply to tell our own stories. Non-monogamy already bucks convention by its very nature. We come from all walks of life and practice our lifestyles in countlessly diverse ways. We don’t need to be made into a compelling story. We already are. The story isn’t how we exist, it’s that we exist. All we need to do is open our mouths to speak our own truths. When someone on the outside of us attempts to speak for us, regardless of the platform, they carry in their preconceived notions…and worse they carry their desire to shoehorn us into those notions. While I thank and appreciate the New York Times for trying, what they gave us was not nearly what was promised or expected or needed.
But, hey… I guess it could be worse. At least there weren’t any stock photos of three pairs of white feet sticking out from under a white duvet.
Kevin Patterson blogs at Poly Role Models.
Welcome to the Black & Poly magazine! I am your new editor. Simply put, my job is to bring to you the voices of the black community who are practicing consensual nonmonogamy. In these pages, you will read about love, relationships, and identity. We will share what we do in our lives, how we see ourselves, and what we want for the world.
Why is there a need for Black & Poly? I have long had this theory that nonmonogamy is familiar to the black community. Mainstream polyamory has an accepted history that is centered on white, middle-class experiences. Our goal is to highlight the experiences of others who have lived before and after the term was put in the dictionary. There's no one way to do polyamory, and the diversity in styles you'll see will be just as diverse as our community.
What qualifies me to edit the blog? I have considered myself polyamorous for nine years. I will expand on my experiences in future posts, but for now I have healthy relationships that meet my needs. I am a leader in the local polyamory community and I draw on my life history to help others. As far as writing, I have been a word nerd for all my life. I edited our high school literary magazine and a regional newsletter in college. I have written fiction published online. I currently manage three websites and I wrote my senior thesis in an entirely different language (Russian).
If you are interested in contributing to the blog, contact us and submit your ideas. We are interested in hearing from people who identify with the black community and are pursuing non-monogamous relationships. You can be single, married, solo-poly, relationship anarchist, straight, or queer. We welcome fiction, essays, interviews, poetry, audio, and video that are about your experiences in this life. Even if you are new to polyamory, we welcome your questions and stories of exploration. Everyone has a voice that can be shared with the community.
Through the work of Ron Young and others, I see the Black & Poly community growing from local meetups and a Facebook group to a global, interconnected community of lovers and activists. Our online presence may be your first view of these relationships, but real learning comes from interacting with experienced practitioners and, of course, making your own mistakes. I hope to continuously encourage you to live your truth and embrace love despite the criticism and judgments you will see in the mainstream world. The Black & Poly community will be here to support you.