Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Autonomy and Control

I'll begin with an obvious, even cliche'd point: Regardless of how freethinking and alternative we are, to some extent, our views are formed by our culture.  Our poly relationships in the West, while lacking broad social acceptance, nevertheless are often based upon Western cultural ideals about monogamous relationships simply because that is the model we have.  Of course, expecting traditional monogamous ideals to hold true in a poly relationship can set a timed depth-charge underneath an otherwise perfectly good relationship, as we have noted in some of our previous posts.  What I want to concentrate on this post, however, is a feature of traditional mono relationships that I think is damaging not only to poly relationships, but also to many mono relationships.

Our cultural ideals about relationships feature a heterosexual, monogamous couple as a unit, turning a united (unit-ed!) front to the world.  In children's storybooks, married couples function seamlessly as a unit, as mum-and-dad.  Only when one of them (often a stepmother) is evil, are they not so unified in their actions as to be almost a single being.

In our cultural ideal about relationships, when our not-evil partner does something, says something, it is almost as though we have done that thing, spoken those words, ourselves.  What our partners do and say reflects upon us so intimately that we may even think of it as representing 'me' and 'my views'.  We can experience deep personal embarrassment in social situations when we think our partner is rude, badly groomed, or when they in any way present themselves in a way that we would never present ourselves.  This sense of embarrassment is reduced or absent when our relationship with that partner is on the rocks, and especially when we are in a social situation where we know that everybody there knows that our relationship is on the rocks, because we no longer identify so deeply with our partner, and we know that those around us are aware of that.

So it seems as though this personal identification is a desirable thing: that lack of it is a sign that things are not as good as they should be in our relationships.  But this very sign of 'closeness' can lead to real problems within the 'ideally close' relationship.  Because just as we naturally control the way we present ourselves to those around us, we begin to want to control the way our partner/s present themselves to the world.  We may begin to tease them to change the way they dress or do their hair.  We may hassle them to lose weight, even though we like their body, because we want the status boost of being with somebody conventionally attractive.  We may have lengthy, soul-destroying arguments with one another because we want them to get rid of stuff they don't want to get rid of, but that we think are eyesores or embarrassing (a favourite - but ugly - chair; photos of happy times with exes; an unflattering - but loved - coat; a strongly-held - but controversial or socially ridiculed - opinion).

The relationship can become a battle over whose personality gets expressed through the couple-unit, and whose gets suppressed for the duration of that relationship.  It is by no means an egalitarian situation, and self-expression is not encouraged, only compliance with the dominant person's preferences and prejudices.  (This tendency also, I think, partly explains why conservative parents find it so incredibly difficult when their adult offspring come out as LGBT or poly: their identification with their adult child is so complete that their social humiliation is as strong as if they had come out themselves.)  The person exercising control may be completely oblivious that they are trying to control everybody within their relationship: it probably seems to them that whatever they want is the sensible, obvious thing to do, that the other/s are wrong, and the issue really is that big a deal, just nobody else can see it.

Controlling behaviour can be identified when we see our partners (or parents!) use tantrums, guilt-trips or stormy, tearful melodrama to force us to behave the way they want us to behave.  If the person is willing to behave this way in front of the family's children, it can be particularly effective, at least in the short term, as the more responsible parent/s are prepared to back down to protect the children.  

This kind of control is easiest in a mono relationship, as there is nobody else sufficiently intimately involved to act as a check and balance.  A polyfi relationship can amplify this tendency if one person is allowed to dominate all the people within the relationship.  A secondary relationship may be negatively impacted by the control dynamic within their partner's primary relationship.  New partners who challenge an existing dynamic by wanting a completely egalitarian relationship with their partner/s may be edged out of the relationship, or, if the partners involved are open-minded and well-intentioned, may help to make the relationship more egalitarian.

Ultimately, I firmly believe that there is no need for one person's desires and preferences to dominate another.  Our wants, however strongly we feel them, are seldom absolute, and a conflict between two strong and opposing 'wants' is seldom a zero-sum game.  Negotiation is always possible between reasonable people.  Taking the examples above:
We might negotiate for the ugly chair to go into the owner's bedroom (or accept it in our shared bedroom) instead of the living room.
We might buy a more flattering coat for a partner (but would have to accept it if they still preferred the ugly one because we do not own them and they get to wear whatever they like).
We have to accept that we do not own and cannot edit a partner's past.  They are entitled to keep whatever photos and other memorabilia they like (provided they have the consent of the people in the photos).  However, we shouldn't have to deal with them being imposed on us against our wishes.  In a cohabiting situation, it is reasonable to negotiate for them not to be displayed in our home, except in our partner's own bedroom (not one shared with us), or, in the absence of a private bedroom for each partner, to expect them to be kept out of sight (but safely).  If we are not cohabiting with that partner, then they get to display them wherever they like in their own home, of course.
We might ask that our partner to self-censor on the controversial topic around our birth-family, if we think it might lead to real problems in our relationship with them.  We may ask them to stop saying particular things that are hurtful or undermining to us personally.  However, we don't have the right to expect them to suppress their opinions under other circumstances.
Finally, even if we do not like or want these things in our space, our partners have a right to expect that we will treat all of their possessions respectfully and carefully, and not have accidental-on-purpose mishaps with their treasured possessions, just as we would expect of them in return.  And they have the right to expect that we will not try to censor them except in a pressing situation.

In all cases, we have no right to hassle a partner to throw out something they value, to appear to be someone they are not, or to change their appearance or opinions to suit us.   Either we value them for who they actually are, or we should move on and find someone who suits us better, rather than trying to push someone into changing who they are to suit us.  We can be smarter than our cultural programming.  We can manage our impulses to control, if we are mindful in our interactions with our partners and children.  And we ought to, if we want genuinely respectful egalitarian relationships with the people who are most important to us in our lives.