Friday, 10 February 2012

But I Have to Be First! Poly Myths 2

This is the concept that, to feel secure in our relationships, and to have a healthy relationship, we need to feel that we come first to our romantic partner.  It includes the idea that our partner will always and invariably be there for us in a personal crisis, to give exactly the kind of support we feel we need at the time.

The assumption is that this is not possible in poly relationships, since there is an automatic conflict of interests when a person has more than one partner.  It's very similar to the Catholic reasoning on why priests should remain celibate.  The argument goes that if a priest had a relationship or family, and there was an emergency at home when he was called to administer Last Rites to a dying parishoner, there would be a conflict of interests, and he could not fulfil both obligations.  To which my reply has always been: What happens when a skilled surgeon has an emergency at home, and is called on to operate on a patient who will die without surgery?  The simple answer, in both cases, is: somebody else will have to be called in to do one of the jobs: either the home support or attend to the dying.  And, if that is not possible, then the individual will have to make a hard decision.  And, honestly, how often is a person likely to face two dramatic crises at exactly the same time?  Not so very often.

Again, when a couple has a child, both parents put the baby first as they should do, not one another.  Babies and children are less competent to care for themselves, so they have to be prioritised.  This in no way challenges the bonds between adults who care for babies and children - or, at least, it shouldn't, in a healthy relationship.  And a person in a relationship with a single parent simply has to accept that their child/ren must come first to them.  If they can't accept that, then the relationship is not likely to last long.  

This idea that we can - and should - come first in a partner's life appears to assume complete free agency, which few of us have.  Consider these examples in a mono context.

What if our partner is disabled and unable to get up, and we have a serious fall? Can they come when we call? Of course not. But they will do what they can – perhaps phone for an ambulance.

What if our partner is hurt and needs to go to hospital, but we also have to look after the children and there is nobody to babysit? Then the injured partner has to go to hospital alone.  This has happened to me, in fact: I had to stay and look after the children while Kester went to hospital alone.

What if our partner is at work and cannot leave without losing the job that supports us both? Can they be expected to drop everything and come home because we have just heard that our mother died and we need their support? Of course not. To do so would simply put us – as a family – in a worse position than before, once the crisis is over.

To expect that we will always come first to a partner, that a partner will always be there for us when we need support, is an expectation that is doomed to disappointment even in a mono situation.  It is not somehow unique to poly, simply because a person has more than one partner.  And even in poly, the support we are able to give a poly partner is far more likely to be conditional on other factors, such as childcare and work responsibilities, than it is on the needs of another poly partner or metamour.

What we have as a couple is the same thing we have in a poly relationship: a knowledge that our partners will do what they can to help us within the limits of their capabilities and other responsibilities. This is just a fact of adult life. Any adult who expects more is going to be sorely disappointed, not to mention incredibly demanding and hard to live with!

As adults, we have already learned (hopefully!) that we cannot possibly *always* come first in another person’s life. To assume that they should invariably put our needs and wants above their own and above any other responsibility they may have would be incredibly selfish and, frankly, immature.


  1. I think what you are saying is that this isn't just a poly myth, but a myth for all relationships..however, while I agree, this doesn't change the feelings of disappointment or hurt. Also, in my experience, the plural marriage can make it easier for one's wife or husband to slack off in the "being there for you" department. Yes, there are other people around to perhaps, notice I said perhaps, pick up the slack. There are times in our lives when feeling you come first to someone is very important to our well being in my humble opinion.

  2. Yes, I am trying to say in this series that I believe a lot of relationship issues are common to both mono and poly relationships. I am getting a little impatient with so many mono people who, faced with the concept of poly, immediately jump to the conclusion that only poly relationships have these problems, without recognising the same problems in mono relationships. It's human nature, I think, to regard our own situation as 'the norm' and not notice the parallels with the lives of those we regard as 'other'.

    I agree that, regardless of whether a relationship is mono or poly, it can be disappointing and hurtful to feel that we don't come first, at least in a crisis. I think our feelings of hurt are stronger when we don't feel completely invested in the thing which is diverting attention away from us. For example, if I need to go to the hospital, and my children need to be cared for, then I'm just relieved that someone can stay home with them while I am away, so I don't mind going alone. I guess that's because I see the children as my responsibility (even though not exclusively, but jointly with my partners) and so I am grateful that my responsibility can be fulfilled even if I am not there to do it myself. On the other hand, I'd be pretty cheesed off if I had to go alone because both my partners wanted to go out to dinner that evening. :P

    But you also get mono relationships where, for example, one partner seems to have all the home responsibilities, and if she (usually she) is in a crisis situation, she is expected to call on her support group - friends, parents, siblings - to help out, rather than rely on her partner, who does not expect to be troubled with home matters.

    Ultimately, I guess what I am saying is that a respectful egalitarian relationship is very different than a competitive relationship, or one with an uneven power dynamic, regardless of whether it is mono or poly.

    You make an interesting point in saying it can be easier for partners to slack off in a multi-partner relationship. I can see how that might happen if everyone regards it as somebody else's responsibility to 'be there for you.' I think it is probably less likely to happen where all partners and metamours care deeply for one another and are strongly invested in one another's well-being. Where there is competition between metamours or partners, neglect would be more likely to happen.

    For this reason, I firmly believe that it is not worth being part of a poly relationship unless everyone in the relationship is, at least, close friends with one another. However, I also recognise that when the heart speaks, judgment flies out of the window. Also that competition and jealousy can develop unexpectedly, once a person is already committed to a relationship.

    Assuming an egalitarian, caring relationship, mono or poly, I believe that the people involved would do their best to ensure that the needs of all - including any children - are met. In this situation, I think the main cause of disappointment and hurt over not coming first is more likely to be unmet expectations than actual neglect. A lot of the time, we go into relationships with a full set of romantic cultural expectations about what being in a relationship 'means' without necessarily taking into consideration the limitations or responsibilities of the other person/people involved in the relationship.

    The only solution I can see to this is for the people involved to take the time to carefully talk it through, discussing which expectations have been unmet, and look at whether those can be better met in future, or whether the situation is such that that particular expectation is unlikely to be met in the near future. The sooner such imbalances are discussed, the better it will be for all concerned: at least they will all know where they stand, and can make any further decisions from there.