Solo, Polyamorous, and Seeking Healthy Community

One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.

Abraham Maslow

We all have a need for consistency and community. What Abraham Maslow classified as ‘belongingness’ is one of our biggest sources of security. And,  while many individuals find this most commonly through partnership on the Relationship Escalator, Solo Polyamorists- who eschew the escalator model- look to their greater community and chosen family in order to meet that need for security and safety.

A big part of my journey in Solo Polyamory has been in seeking out that community and looking for ways to meet that need outside of an escalator relationship. The plural nature of polyamory lends itself well to this- at first glance, at least- with all the interconnected relations and interweaving of people. I, like many, have found myself at times falling into that old trope of “You’re poly, I’m poly, we have so much in common!” We don’t always choose the best family.

Just as one uses discernment — or not — when seeking out romantic, intimate, and sexual relationships, it would seem to make sense to also use that same discernment to choose carefully the community one engages with, right? However, as the saying goes, common sense is hardly common. Survival instincts can sometimes override common sense, and it is possible to settle with a close fit where the places of misalignment seem they can be tolerable.

There is most definitely a risk of falling into old patterns of habits and behaviors when choosing community.

Five years into it, and I reflect on how so much of my journey in Solo Polyamory has been about reclaiming a sense of independent identity. I grew up with mixed levels of security, and- for all my independent spirit- I struggled to find security as a young adult without a partnership. The conscious choice to do polyamory without a primary relationship was, in part, me challenging myself to step out of codependency habits and into an experience of interdependence.

I discovered that the long ingrained patterns of codependency still occasionally showed up within the survival-driven community-building I’ve endeavored to engage in. More recently I have found an ever clearer line between the relationships that feel nourishing and energizing, and the relationships which feel draining and depleting.

IMG_20161205_143322045This year so far has seen me diving into deep introspection around this. The cocooning winter hibernation has provided the perfect space for grounding into a deeper understanding of my self and what I need. I am someone who hasn’t experienced much security in my adult life, and many relationships- both romantic and social- have been ones that I’ve engaged in in part as a survival strategy, to build networks wherein I might find a safety net. And when I’ve found a dynamic that feels good, I’ve leaned in heavily, perhaps too much at times, in search of that security I crave.

But I have yet to really achieve that reliable safety net. So far what I’ve done hasn’t been working for me. 

I found it’s easy to fall into a trap of spending all one’s time trying to please others, out of a fear of potentially losing them if you don’t please them. But that’s putting the community before the individual, and when that happens, your individual health suffers.

When you put your self aside in order to please others, you aren’t honoring your individual needs and desires; you’re surrendering autonomy to the whims of others- and replacing an old co-dependency on one with a new co-dependency on many. And, it’s possible to go from reforming self identity to fit one partner’s expectations, to trying to fit a community’s expectation.

That can be healthy and empowering if the community is one formed of individuals who are engaging in self awareness and growth and celebrate diversity of individuality. It can be potent and liberating if the community embraces consent, compassion, empathy and forgiveness. However, if a community is mired in draining, limiting, fear-based behaviors, if the community lacks cohesiveness in shared values or tolerates abusive behaviors, it may end up generating new self-identities that limit self expression and freedom. It’s easy to feel small in that. And when people allow themselves to be small in their own lives, that’s when they might experience depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.

And yes, I speak from my own experience here.

When people appear to be something other than good and decent, it is only because they are reacting to stress, pain, or the deprivation of basic human needs such as security, love, and self-esteem.

Abraham Maslow

So what do we solo polyamorists do?

For us who are polyamorous and queer, our family may not be a source of security. For many of us who are solo, we don’t necessarily experience our romantic and sexual relationships as the most grounded source of connection in our lives; the communities we choose are often fluid and changeable themselves.

My recent experiences have led me to believe it is paramount to figure out the compatibility between one’s self, and a community of friendship- whether that is entangled with one’s polycule, or not. Do your core values align? How do you deal with conflict? And- to what degree are people able to be independent in their relationships?

I’m examining this in many areas of relating in my life. It’s important to note that I’m not deeming a person (or group) to be toxic, but rather, the dynamic that exists between people- which they both participate in- that can be draining. ‘Toxicity’, while being an evocative and charged description I sometimes lean on, is really a judgement and story about a feeling, one which often comes with finger pointing and blame. 

When we use the word toxic to describe how we feel about something, we judge that feeling. Instead, consider that any number of people (including yourself) can play into a relationship becoming toxic. What’s more, there’s the possibility that a dynamic can change when the people in the relationship change their behavior; very nourishing connections can become draining, and likewise draining connections can once again become nourishing.

“The longer you are in an echo chamber the shittier your coping skills become.”
~ Paul Verge

So what do we do? In the echo-chambers of sub-culture communities, how can you tell the difference between the draining, ‘toxic’ dynamics, and the ones that are nourishing? Here’s my checklist for evaluating a relationship dynamic, be it with a person, or a community:

snake-mamba-green-mamba-toxic-38268Signs this relationship dynamic might currently be Draining for me:

  • I make a lot of excuses for this person’s behaviour.
  • I experience feeling exhausted/drained/tired/lethargic in their company or after spending time with them.
  • I perceive that I seem to be doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in this relationship.
  • I don’t feel that this person appreciates what I do.
  • This person seems to have a lot of ‘drama’ in them and around them.
  • I’m afraid to confront this person because of their possible reaction (but I’m not afraid of confrontation in general).
    I feel really lost and abandoned if this person isn’t communicating with me.
  • Communication with this person seems to be very one way.
  • Communication with this person seems to be limited in topic range.
  • I don’t feel I can be totally myself with this person, I need to pretend some things about me are different, or hide some aspect of myself.
  • I feel like the ideas this person holds onto are stuck in an echo chamber, and they resist considering alternative perspectives.
  • I feel like I need to make myself ‘small’ in order to please this person, or at least, not anger them.

 

Signs this relationship dynamic is currently Energising for me:

  • I have no fear in talking to or approaching this person.
  • We make our way through difficult conversations without escalating conflict between us.
  • I feel heard and appreciated by this person.
  • I experience two way communication with this person.
  • I am excited for this person to meet other friends, and for friends to meet them.
  • I feel energised, refreshed, possibly inspired, after my interactions with this person.
  • We are able to mutually hold emotional space for one another.
  • We talk about and explore many different topics together.
  • I don’t feel a need to hide any part of myself, I can be totally authentic.
  • I feel like I can present alternative ideas and perspectives to this person without being shut down or shut out.
  • I feel very empowered by this dynamic, and I notice the other person also feels this way.

I read something recently about being in an abusive relationship. One of the questions posed was, “Do you find yourself making excuses for, or justifying, your partner’s harmful behaviour?” I look at this question in the framing of my relationships, and I can see how, in about half of the most compelling relationships I have been in, I’ve taken steps to defend or justify a partner’s hurtful behaviour towards others. This pulls me into some serious self-examination around why I feel the need to defend hurtful behaviour- and what boundaries do I need to consider in future relationships whereby I won’t find myself doing so again?

So, what do you do when you realise a dynamic is no longer fulfilling? There’s many things. Here’s a few that have been working for me:

Strategies for Shifting from Draining To Energising:

  • Check in with your core needs and desires– are they being met, and if not, what could you do to refocus on them?
  • Create boundaries that are loving and compassionate, that nourish your needs and create spaces where you feel energised.
  • Take a time out from the dynamic to allow for recalibration.
  • Examine what your core values are, and consider how you could bring them to life in your day-to-day world more.
  • Diversify your social circle.
  • Spend time doing things you love and invite people in your life to join you doing them.

No matter how great the sex is (or has been), no relationship is worth tolerating a draining, unfullfilling dynamic in the emotional, social, and spiritual aspects of the relationship- and my inner good girl has defended one too many people who ended up doing me more harm than good.

I’ve learned that the longer we tolerate relationships that don’t feed and inspire our spirits and hearts, the more weighed down we feel. Solo polyamorists need their communities as a core element of security, stability and anchoring in their lives- not just as an emergency survival strategy, but as a long term relationship- and we each deserve to find communities of friends and lovers who will respect our independent spirits, and hold us steady through the rough times.

For me, I’m on my way. I’m excited for 2017 becoming the year where I redefine how I relate to the communities I’ve participated in, and choose to engage with. I’m stoked for the new boundaries I’m creating that make space for me to show up fully. The biggest piece: I realised I can’t keep playing small in order to make others feel better: I’m here to love in big ways, and invite everyone to join me in being big and bold in the ways they love. And perhaps, if we can all love in big and bold ways, we’ll grow a community with much deeper roots, stronger foundations, and dynamics that enrich and enliven us all.

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Whose Ethics Are They Anyway?

I have a confession to make. I’ve been quiet about this for some time. I’ve a problem with “Ethical Non Monogamy”.

Specifically, my problem is the terminology.

Ethical. What’s ethical? I ask myself.

Ethics are defined as morals, as the right/wrong, good/bad code of conduct adopted by a group of people, often determined by their cultural or religious teachings. That means that ethics are variable across the world. Ethics are subjective guidelines, whose application can vary situationally and contextually. And, they can often come into conflict.

5920131438198Consider the differing moral codes of Islam and Modern Western Society, for example, and all the many conflicts that arise from that. Someone raised Muslim, of Muslim faith, may have no qualms with a man having multiple wives, something that many in Western Christian culture would find abhorrent. The modern western embrace of gay marriage as a human right is, similarly, seen as abhorrent to many of the Islamic Faith.

So, I’ve got a moral dilemma over defining my non-monogamy as “ethical”.

There’s a plethora of articles on the internet examining the ethics of non-monogamy. In fact, it seems like the vast majority of discussion and rhetoric available online- and in print- on the subject of polyamory is devoted to debate of the ethics and morals.

That’s understandable, I think. When life long monogamous matrimony has for so long been held up as The Moral Standard in the globally dominant white-settler-centric culture, the number one fear that many hold around challenging that structure is that it might mean losing one’s sense of morals and ethics. The implication, especially from more conservative elements, is that being non monogamous is synonymous with being an immoral and unethical person. And so, when there can be fear of judgement and internalised shame around being non-monogamous, it is no wonder that so much bandwidth is given over to the discussion of the polyamorous ethical code.

However, the dominant voices in that discussion have begun to take on a ‘poly-er than thou’ tone, attempting to police the definitions of non monogamous relationships with projections of their own personal ethics onto others. When we as a community find ourselves in the position where individuals are taking on the job of drafting the moral code which we are all expected to follow- or be shunned for not following- we begin to tread dangerously into the territory of dogma and religion.

High_sparrow_blood_of_my_bloodI’m a firm believer that it’s the people involved in the relationship that get to mutually decide between them how that relationship is explored, defined, and evolves. Maybe this is diving into a rabbit hole of philsophical and political thought here: I see dictating ethics and imposing one’s own morality is what the White Christian settlers did when they arrived in the Americas. That led to genocide and cultural erasure, leading in turn to generations of oppression and trauma. I am a non-Christian settler to North America, of ancestry (Irish, Greek, Roma) that knows too well of the trauma involved in having another’s cultural values and ethics superimposed with an iron fist. And so, I’m averse to someone else dictating their own ethics and projecting them as ethics for all of us to follow. Each of us has our own values, our own personal moral code, formed from the cultures we grew up in, the life experiences we have had, and the life choices we make now. Assuming that our individual ethics need to apply to everyone is oppressive. And that doesn’t sit well with me.

Rather than get into a debate over whether hierarchies and such can be ethical, I’d like to propose that many of these discussions are missing the point:

In ANY kind of relationship structure- be it monogamous or not, hierarchical, egalitarian, anarchic or otherwise- you can behave like a jerk, or you can behave like a decent human being.

I’m an anarchist, a celebrator of individuality and personal autonomy. I don’t want to do the thing that I’m critiquing others of, and tell you now what you should be doing, or not doing. I think everyone has the right to choose, define, and articulate what works for them, without imposing it (by force or by implication) on others. What I’d like to do is invite you to consider what might be cool, or uncool, actions in healthy relationships, whatever your relationship styles are.

goose

don’t be a Canadian Goose: they’re jerks

Some Things that are Uncool To Do In Relationships:

  • Abuse others- verbally, physically, emotionally.
  • Manipulate (Coerce others to doing what you want them to do).
  • Gaslight (Make others feel responsible for something you did, ignoring your own responsibility.)
  • Ignore your partners’ wants, desires, and nos.
  • Ignore the needs, desires and nos of others involved in your relational landscape.
  • Stone wall/ghost (ie give the silent treatment).
  • Ignoring one’s own privileges and/or levels of positional power within the relationship.
  • Blame others for how you are feeling without giving space for dialogue and resolution.
  • Expecting other people to “just know” you (telepathy).

Some Things that are Cool To Do In Relationships:

  • Listen to what your partner’s needs, wants, desires, and nos are.
  • Express your own needs, wants, desires and nos.
  • Be compassionate and considerate of the needs, desires, and nos of all people involved in your relational landscape.
  • Respect each individual’s personal autonomy and individual right to make informed choices.
  • Communicate expectations clearly.
  • Have courageous conversations, even if the outcome might not be what you want.
  • Acknowledge your privileges and/or levels of positional power within each relationship.
  • Take responsibility for the effects of your actions.
  • Work on knowing your own self.

 

What I’m getting at here isn’t so much about subjective ethics, as it is about honesty, and full transparency in relationships. It’s about having personal integrity first and foremost as the foundation of your relationships: knowing one’s self, and engaging in such a way as to know others. Curiosity to understand the motivations of others, and how their own values and ethics might differ from yours, can be a valuable quality to nurture.

My invitation to you is this: as you continue to sift through the many volumes of literature (in print or on screen) devoted to non-monogamy, whenever you notice the debate begin to dive into Ethics, consider: whose Ethics are these? Very often, they are the ones of the writers, ones that are invariably coming from the cultural context and personal experience of the writers. This doesn’t make them wrong or invalid. It’s just good to keep in mind that, as one friend of mine might say, your own mileage might vary. You may have values, ethics, and personal morals that differ from others- and that is okay. I encourage you to read the writings of non-white people on polyamory- writers like Michon Neal and The Critical Polyamorist– read the writings of asexual, non-coupled, and queer polyamorists. Take the time to imbibe contrasting ideas and thoughts! Let’s get outside the box of projecting one cultural subset of ethics onto the whole spectrum of non-monogamy, and let’s start defining things in a way that one doesn’t need a course in ethics to understand them.

I prefer the term Honest Non Monogamy, and I invite you to use that term too.

The Slut, The Witch, and the Solo Poly Woman

“Be wild; that is how to clear the river. The river does not flow in polluted, we manage that. The river does not dry up, we block it. If we want to allow it its freedom, we have to allow our ideational lives to be let loose, to stream, letting anything come, initially censoring nothing. That is creative life. It is made up of divine paradox. To create one must be willing to be stone stupid, to sit upon a throne on top of a jackass and spill rubies from one’s mouth. Then the river will flow, then we can stand in the stream of it raining down.”

~
Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With The Wolves

There is so much that has been written, and so much yet to find expression, in the lives of those who have been raised as women. For centuries, being born with a uterus has meant being locked into being nurturing, polite, gentle. Women have always sought to break out of those limitations, and dared to ask to be seen for more than their breasts, their sex appeal, or their procreative abilities. We ask to be known for our intelligence, our personalities, our integrity, our insight, our wildness, and our strength. This is the timeless journey to find “the great woman”, and there are many expressions of who the Great Woman can be.

I wish to share something of my own journey in this.

Throughout them all, giving up her individuality, she would become the general symbol at which the preacher and moralist might point, and in which they might vivify and embody their images of woman’s frailty and sinful passion. Thus the young and pure would be taught to look at her, with the scarlet letter flaming on her breast,—at her, the child of honorable parents,—at her, the mother of a babe, that would hereafter be a woman, —at her, who had once been innocent, —as the figure, the body, the reality of sin. And over her grave, the infamy that she must carry thither would be her only monument.

~ from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

There is implied trust of the partner of someone who is well liked and trusted. Whether conscious of it or not, we form opinions of people that are often informed by our opinions of the people they are in relationships with, and our perceptions of the interactions in those relationships. Without visible partnerships and relationships- which can happen both to Solo Polyamorous individuals, as well as individuals who need to keep their relationships secret (which can be for a variety of reasons)- opinions can grow through a kind of tunnel vision, where we are never able to witness the other facets of a person’s character and integrity.

growing togetherThere are many things I miss about being ‘coupled’, many moments I wish I had a nesting or primary-like partner: when I want to check in about someone new I’m seeing, or need to talk about something I’ve experienced. There is absolutely a void there, one that I seek to fill through my friendships, and by gently inviting partners into that space as our relationships allow.

Whereas coupledom offers a mechanism where someone can say, “Hey, your partner was out of line there”, or even allow someone to call their own partner in, the uncoupled person has the potential to be a source of chaos- and sometimes, it’s true, they are- because there’s no fail-safe accountability system that is immediately obvious. And, as human beings, we have learned to be suspicious of individuals who don’t have someone to hold them accountable, encourage them to apologize for their mistakes, or support them to own their actions, even when they’ve made poor choices.

In honest non monogamous relationships it can be tricky to balance the individual requests for privacy, with requests for transparency from other partners. With no primary partner to be accountable to, I’ve lived my relationships with a particular degree of openness, allowing my close friends and partners to take the place of that accountability normally handed to one person only. Blogging about my experiences has been one way of offering myself with accountability, but it certainly hasn’t been the only way. I’ve learned to be less impulsive in my actions, and to temper my passions with patience. I trust the people around me to let me know if I’ve acted out of line. And, I ask my partners and my friends to trust me, as I allow my life to be a little more transparent than most

But trust is hard. Trust is not easy. Everyone’s had experiences of trust being broken. And so, some people are looked on by society as more of a risk, more of a threat than others.

I’m recently finding myself confronted with a level of Judgement I hadn’t experienced before. Perhaps it is something emerging as I age and my grey hairs become more populous. Maybe it’s that I continue to stay Solo and uncoupled through the years, committed to my single-hood in many ways. When I began this blog, and at every step of the growth of my path as a Relationship Coach, I have noticed that many have felt challenged by my singleishness personally, and by the idea of Solo Polyamory in general. I was fortunate to find many like minds, and form networks of support through social media, and very quickly felt that I was not alone. However, I live in a bubble of solo-support.

I ask myself, what is it that I’m feeling, that I’m labelling as ‘judgement’? Perhaps it’s fear? Fear that I, as a solo, polyamorous individual, might secretly try to “cowboy” someone’s beloved, rope them off from the herd, and seek to make them my monogamous or primary partner?

Maybe there is a fear because, as a solo individual, I don’t appear to be answerable or accountable to anyone. The kinds of agreements that help a primary couple in their path to opening up are not ones that I have to make with any partners. I don’t need to make a check in call or let my partners know before I have sex with someone new (though, I do choose to keep them up to date, and let them know if I can when sex with someone new to me might be a possibility). That can bring up anxiety around sexual health and safety, and I get that. But at the same time, I’m forthright in my relationships about operating on a system of trust: trust that my partners will disclose everything I need to know about their sexual health, and asking them to trust that I will do the same.

The very thing that others can be suspicious of Solo people for, is often the very reason we are Solo: a strong desire to preserve our individual sovereignty.

“For me being solo poly seems to have made me aware of just how much ownership I have over myself. That no one, even if I am dating them, has ownership of me or control of my actions (except in the sense that we have agreed on something or negotiated it). It’s lovely to be “free” to just be.” ~Catherin, Solo polyamorist

The Harlot

slutA few months ago I started doing work with a coach, examining archetypal energies, looking at past traumas, approaching his work on an energetic and experiential level. When we were looking at my archetypes, one that stood out, was the Harlot

A Man and One Man at that, is what women are supposed to want. So, women for whom this isn’t of interest have traditionally been treated with suspicion. You only have to read the horrific stories of how lesbians are routinely treated in South Africa and hundreds of other cultures to see how women who don’t base their lives around men are viewed as a threat to the social order. Or look at the rampant slut-shaming of any woman in history who has ever dared to suggest she enjoys sex, or can have it without love, or can enjoy it with multiple partners, or is happy to sell it.”

~Catherine “Chas” Scott 

This archetype reading has really stuck with me, and offered me a new framing to understand how I, a solo polyamorous woman in my mid 30s, can be perceived by the world.

The socially accepted path for a woman today is far more liberal than the expectations held of our mothers and foremothers. A woman can date around through her teens and twenties, but there is an expectation that she will, eventually, find a partner to settle and nest with, and perhaps have children with. She is encouraged to find her sexual empowerment during her dating years, and can continue to have a sexually rich life through her years of marriage, and become a loving, nurturing mother.

Women in nesting partnerships who open their relationships consensually are perceived as doing so with support and agreements with their partners (ideally) and so the sexual freedom that open relating can offer manifests through a funnel of clear accountability. The safety zone created by being coupled, makes this woman’s sexual empowerment safer, perceived to be tempered by her partner.

While a sexually empowered solo man is often deemed a ‘player’, an archetype sometimes celebrated, the only framework we have for understanding the sexually empowered solo woman is as a slut, a whore- the harlot.

“Recently I’ve been subject to what I feel is, if not downright slut-shaming, then at least some pretty harsh judgement by other women due to my fairly sexually open persona. What I perceive in those women is projection of their own insecurities, possibly also jealousy that I’m unafraid to admit that I’m attracted to more than one man, and ultimately a need to police other women’s behaviour and desires because I represent a threat to this starvation economy, where Men are the ultimate prize, and Other Women are our competitors for that prize. I find it kind of amusing, if I’m honest, but it’s also pretty sad. “

~Catherine “Chas” Scott 

 

spice girls 2

The Spice Girls: sexually empowered women celebrated in their 20s, but shunned in their 30s.

The unwed and solo woman, empowered in her sovereignty- including, but not limited to, empowerment in her sexual and sensual expressions- is terrifying to society. I don’t think it’s that she is fundamentally scary; I think it’s because she embodies the antithesis of the accepted order of things.

Take the stigma of being a woman, and add to that the stigma of being a sexually forward woman, who articulates her desires, a ‘slut’ if you like. But a slut is no longer a slut if she is coupled, owned, tamed. She can be a slut when she is in her twenties, fresh and exploring.

The slut who remains unowned, untamed, beholden seemingly to only herself beyond her 20s- that’s terrifying. She is an unknown variable, a ‘witch’ of seduction.

Solo polyamorous women in their 30s, 40s, and older, have faced all kinds of discrimination and shaming- from employers to family members, to complete strangers. People question “Well, what’s wrong with you?” when they learn that you are not interested in marriage, and not desiring to have children. “Why are you afraid of commitment?” come the well intentioned inquiries. Doctors and other medical professionals profess “Oh, you’ll change your mind about having children eventually.”

The Witch and the Crone

witchThe desire to not have children, for me, is not just from my own miscarriages, but also arises when I see dear friends surrendering dreams to their children to make manifest for them, some two decades from now. While my desire to be unshackled by legal wedlock was born from seven years living in default monogamy and sinking into co-dependance within that, the commitment to stay unwed and without bearing children of my own has grown from a very real desire to focus my energy and time on other endeavours.

In ancient societies, an older woman who dedicated her life to disseminating the wisdom of the community, who could speak up with boldness, was seen as the Crone- a perhaps mysterious elder to be respected.

But if a younger woman grew into her Crone-hood before her hairs were grey and while her libido still hummed, a woman who was perhaps childless yet passionate- she was labelled a Witch.

“The archetype of the witch is long overdue for celebration. Daughters, mothers, queens, virgins, wives, et al. derive meaning from their relation to another person. Witches, on the other hand, have power on their own terms. They have agency. They create. They praise. They commune with nature/ Spirit/God/dess/Choose-your-own-semantics, freely, and free of any mediator. But most importantly: they make things happen. The best definition of magic I’ve been able to come up with is “symbolic action with intent” — “action” being the operative word. Witches are midwives to metamorphosis. They are magical women, and they, quite literally, change the world.”

~ Pamela J. Grossman

I never fully appreciated it until now, how much my body would change in my 30s. How much my energy levels would shift, and the extent to which I would desire to untangle myself from the very limiting scripts of expectations placed upon me because of my physical biology.

A woman in her 30s is ‘supposed’ to be kept, mothering children, boundlessly compassionate, giving her nurturing to anyone and everyone, and she helps sustain the status quo. If she says no to any of those things, if she asserts her boundaries around what feels good and doesn’t feel good for her, if she speaks up against things happening in the world that don’t sit well for her, if she dares ruffle any feathers at all, she is often shamed and both she and those around her are made to believe she is being neglectful and selfish, and potentially dangerous.

As I move through another layer of understanding my inner Good Girl (a term coined by my friend and colleague Marcia Baczynski), I find I just don’t have energy to play into that story of self limitation any more. As risky as it is to put myself out to the world as who I am- queer, solo, polyamorous- and as much as I may be shamed, even treated with suspicion in certain quarters, it costs me far more inside my soul and my heart to not be open about who I am and to live my life authentically.

I don’t know if what I write will make sense for anyone other than the other solo poly women who will read this. It can be challenging for us to find community, to be accepted in an experience of village/tribe/community when we are so clear on our soloness, our desires, and our edges. Some perceive that as being in conflict with their values around Community. We are emotionally strung up for having boundaries. We are berated for not meeting someone else’s expectation or assumption of a perceived obligation.

The Great Solo Woman

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I want to invite a new possibility into this conversation.

In the Good Girl Recovery program we talk about bringing our Great Woman into the world. She’s the one with beautiful bold boundaries, who isn’t trapped in by the ‘shoulds’ society tells her, who does not quietly suffer from tolerations that she has the ability to address. She is empowered. She has her voice. She ruffles feathers. She shines into the world.

Just as our old foremothers in their crone-hood became keepers of wisdom, the elders and teachers of communities, I hold that for us younger, solo poly women seeking out our Great Woman, we too can become holders of insight and guides of sorts. I feel that, moving into my life as a relationship coach, I’m already exploring this. My primary relationship these days is in collecting my writings, sharing my thoughts, and coaching others through their journeys to understand themselves and their loved ones.

I don’t wish to be plagued by the feeling of self shame that arises when someone casts a subtle judgement on my life choices, or when someone skews my outspokenness, my boundary setting, or my comfortability in my sexuality, into a narrowed implication of my values and intentions.

And- this is not to say that the coupled women and the mothers do not have their own struggles to be seen. We’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t. I want every woman to find her Great Woman.

I look first at my own life. In keeping with the wisdom that says one must look after one’s self first before tending to others, I feel so palpably now that what I’m seeking is a means to dance courageously into my Great Woman, into my harlot-crone, the wise lover, the wild knowledge giver.

Her magic is to fall in love, not with a single human body or soul, but potentially with everyone, and every thing that is.

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Radical Self Reliance and Community Responsibility

“The greatest damage done by neglect, trauma or emotional loss is not the immediate pain they inflict but the long-term distortions they induce….. All too often these ill-conditioned implicit beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. We create meanings from our unconscious interpretation of early events, and then we forge our present experiences from the meaning we’ve created. Unwittingly, we write the story of our future from narratives based on the past… Mindful awareness can bring into consciousness those hidden, past-based perspectives so that they no longer frame our worldview.’ Choice begins the moment you disidentify from the mind and its conditioned patterns, the moment you become present…Until you reach that point, you are unconscious.’ …In present awareness we are liberated from the past.”

~Gabor Mate

 

I read an article recently on Radical Self Reliance, and how this concept is killing people. In it, the author talks about the concept of Radical Self Reliance as it exists in the modern influence of Burning Man Culture on the world at large. Simply defined on the Burning Man Organisation’s website, it is encouragement for “each individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources.”

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walking across Playa, August 2014

In practice, it’s to encourage personal responsibility for one’s own well-being: you bring to the Playa what you will need, you don’t expect anyone else to look after you. It’s a fantastic principle to have, and I have found huge value in the practice of living life in such a way that I take on responsibility for my own well being and experience- it has taught me resilience and emotional fortitude that I don’t know I could have learned elsewhere.

I do, however, see a shadow side to this. Radical Self Reliance can become toxic, I find, when we shift into exclusively looking after ourselves, and forgetting that none of us are physical- or emotional- islands.

We are all in relationship to one another. Until only one human being is left on this planet, there is no escaping this.

Individualism and “Poly Libertarianism”

Individualism- putting the individual first, and ignoring the collective needs of a community- is, I believe, one of the most prominent characteristics of the endemic disconnection emerging in modern society.

No one is responsible for anyone else’s emotions or meeting anyone else’s needs. There is no more co-dependence. There is interdependence, on a voluntary basis. Each member is an autonomous, free individual, who can come or go as she or he pleases. Our love is earned, not expected.”

~Sara Burrows, on Poly Libertarianism

I see many people engaging in what has been labelled “Poly Libertarianism”, where they state their needs and shirk any responsibility for meeting what other people’s needs might be. Heck, I’ve done that and been one of those poly people. Prioritising my relationship with myself has been fundamental in my own journey in Solo Polyamory. For a long time, I needed to shut out the idea that others had needs and requests that I could (and should) respond to because I’d internalised damaging messages about having to please others. I view this behaviour pattern now as an adaptive behaviour I used to cope with my own personal experience of the collective trauma inherent with being a woman raised in a patriarchal society. I’d suppressed my own desires for so long that now, when I was finally free of that suppression, I didn’t want to stop and listen to what anyone else wanted. I had to discover what I wanted.

As much as that path allowed me to get clear on where the stories around obligations and ‘shoulds’ came from, as much as it taught me the power in saying no to meeting someone else’s desire, and asking for my own desires to be met, it didn’t bring me joy in my relationships, because it alone didn’t support connection. It was hugely valuable in the process of finding authenticity in myself, but it didn’t support intimacy.

Intimacy and Compassion

Intimacy doesn’t exist in individualism. Intimacy can only come from connection, and while individualism encourages more self-awareness and connection to one’s own needs, wants, and desires, it is Intimacy  that asks us to recognise the needs, wants, and desires of our partners, families, friends, and indeed, our entire community.

“Being cut off from our own natural self-compassion is one of the greatest impairments we can suffer. Along with our ability to feel our own pain go our best hopes for healing, dignity and love. What seems nonadapative and self-harming in the present was, at some point in our lives, an adaptation to help us endure what we then had to go through. If people are addicted to self-soothing behaviours, it’s only because in their formative years they did not receive the soothing they needed. Such understanding helps delete toxic self-judgment on the past and supports responsibility for the now. Hence the need for compassionate self-inquiry.”

~ Gabor Mate, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts

For the first few years of my journey in polyamory, focussing on Solo Polyamory, I nourished and refined a fantastic relationship with myself. It has been a remarkable journey in self-intimacy. And yet, the relationships I had with others didn’t reflect the kind of intimacy I was desiring. I was so keen on my own radical self-reliance, that I forgot a very important piece: community responsibility.

Yes, you are responsible for your Self, I am responsible for my Self- and yet we exist in the same place and time, and therefore we have a relationship with one another. In that relationship, I cannot shake off responsibility for the effects of my words and actions on you, nor can you shake off responsibility for the effects of your words and actions on me. That is to say, while your reactions are your own, that doesn’t mean I can’t participate in the processing of your reaction, or that I should ignore the effects my own actions and words have had on you- no matter what my initial intent was.

I understand the drive for Poly Libertarianism, I really do. It provides an amazing buffer against the shadow emotions that can come up in relationships, experiences of jealousy, which some believe are rooted in feelings of fear, loneliness, loss, sadness, anger, betrayal, envy and humiliation.

I would propose, however, that the Individualism approach doesn’t actually address the core issue. I have found that those root emotions so often mentioned are all manifestations of fear, or more specifically, they are a side effect of living with a scarcity paradigm.

We fear loss, loneliness, betrayal, humiliation when we believe love is a limited resource, and we experience envy, anger, possessiveness as a reaction to that fear, still within the scarcity paradigm. These all relate to the core (false) belief that we can have ownership of someone else’s love, and that we may be entitled to it because there’s a limited supply.

And, scarcity is a story we can choose, and it is one that we are sometimes unconsciously choosing when we set ourselves apart on that metaphorical island where we are only responsible for ourselves, both physically and emotionally.

Our other option is to switch gears and choose to recognise that love is abundant and can come in infinite forms. And, that if we dare to show vulnerability and compassion, an infinite number of connections can form, and intimate community can grow.

“Cultivating intimacy with something means becoming sufficiently close to it to know it very, very well. When we don’t get close enough — like scientists keeping themselves emotionally stranded from their subject of study — we miss essential aspects of it. And if we get too close, to the point of fusing with it — like new lovers letting their boundaries collapse in a romantic swoon — we will no longer be able to keep it in focus.

In intimacy, we are deeply relating to an “other” — which could be a person, object, or state — getting close to it in a manner that transcends mere proximity. When it comes to cultivating intimacy with something, connection with it and separation from it are not opposites, but rather fluidly intertwined dance partners.”

~Robert Augustus Masters, “Cultivating Our Intimacy”

When you’re living in an abundance paradigm, the fear of loss, loneliness, and ownership of love don’t appear in the same way, you’re sharing love with everyone, you’re giving your care-bear-stare of compassion and welcoming to each person, whether lover or friend, in whatever way feels right and consensual, and you never feel depleted, nor do you feel lacking when alone.

The Balancing Act between Individual and Community

e727a05410166fcb542ee1eea918I’ve noticed a trend when relationships hit rocky waters: we can confuse the need for individual sovereignty with selfishness, and relationships that put individual needs of one person over another can grow dysfunctional. Likewise, sometimes individuals shirk responsibility for their participation in another person’s emotional state. When that happens, I think there’s a repression of empathy and compassion, which ends up perpetuating internalised stories around scarcity, othering, duality, and disconnection. And, on the flip-side of that, Individuals who take on responsibility for another person’s emotional state are effectively engaging in a form of self-repression, where their own state is ignored and they become energetically subservient to another’s projections of them.

So what is the solution? Relationships that respect there may be both overlapping and incompatible needs, and approach this quandary with compassion- that’s where I feel healthy Intimacy lies. Recognising that our intent is often different from the results of our actions and interactions allows us to have boundaries whilst engaging with compassion. When things go awry and things aren’t the way we want them to be, we don’t necessarily have to take on responsibility for how someone else feels, but we can recognise our own participation in events that may have created that experience- and, more importantly, if those events have been ones that have hurt, injured, or left trauma with another person, we can engage in the process of healing.

Recognising our own potential for active participation in improving the experience of all our partners, family members, friends, metamors, and community, is a huge leap in nourishing both intimacy and compassion. And, huge leaps are not easy. This one asks us to grapple with the stories of self shame, pride, ego, the desire to Be Right, and to find in ourselves greater stores of compassion, humility, empathy, understanding, and that thing we all say we’re here for: Love.

For 2016, my invitation to you is this: don’t be an island. Radical Self Reliance is great, and- you also don’t have to be alone. Our society is suffering from a disease of disconnection, and I sometimes wonder if the urge to explore polyamory and other forms of non-monogamy stems from a deep rooted desire for greater experiences of connection.

Do you dare to open yourself to the possibility of deeper, and more intimate connection? Are you willing to examine what it is that you, as an individual, need, want, and desire? And also to examine what the people around you need, want, and desire? Radical self-reliance can teach us about ourselves; Radical Community Responsibility is the journey of growing to know one another.

 

Business development - Closeup of hands holding seedling in a group


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Radical Relationships and the Evolution of Identity

Three years ago I set out on a journey to explore my identity- I wanted to know who I was and what was going to work for me in relationships. I committed myself to a two year period of being Singleish, without a primary partner, and being Polyamorous, having multiple partners. Three years and thirty-nine lovers later, I have an identity- and it isn’t the one I started out with.

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Every so often I get asked about the difference between Relationship Anarchy and Polyamory. To summarise very obtusely, the former is more of a philosophical approach to relating to people, whereas the latter is the label given to a particular form of Non Monogamy. Yet, in practice, they appear to have a lot of overlap. For me, the more I dive into exploring and examining what Relationship Anarchy is, the more I develop a love/hate relationship with the term “Polyamory”- adoration for the freedom it offers, and frustration at the limitation it can present with.

I can tell you what I believe to be true about Relationship Anarchy- it’s a philosophy that provides a construct for the most consensually-based relationships. Whereas the act of applying labels like ‘monogamy’, ‘primaried’, ‘polyamory’, and so forth, is about defining what we have with someone (sometimes with the belief that by defining something we preserve it, a notion I don’t personally buy into anymore), Relationship Anarchy is a conversation about, “Where are we right now?” and “Who are we today?” and “What’s real for us in this moment?”

I sat down recently with my dear friend Ian MacKenzie to talk about the concepts of Relationship Anarchy, and the possibilities I feel it provides for whole communities, along with the opportunities for a new paradigm of relationshiping to emerge- one in which individualism and collectivism can once again be in harmony. This is a paradigm that I think goes a little deeper than the scope of Relationship Anarchy, and so I’m calling it- Relationship Radicalism.

You can listen to my conversation with Ian below, and/or follow along with the transcript here.


I think that Radical Relating- and the evolution we are seeing within that- represents a powerful paradigm shift around the art of relationshiping. It isn’t relating for the sake of arriving at some fixed destination, nor is it a process of auditioning for particular roles one requires to be filled. Rather, it is relating for the sake of relating.

It is relating from a place of authenticity. It is relating in a way that both honors the needs, wants and desires of the individual, whilst seeking connection- and synergy- with a collective.

This is the paradigm I find growing in my own life, as I witness myself blossom into a multitude of deeply loving, evolving, embodied, long term relationships, both romantic and aromantic, sexual and platonic, with lovers, metamors, friendtimacies, and platonic friendships all occupying significant places in my life.

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What I see coming in the not-too-distance future, both in my own life and in the communities around me, is something that is about much more than romantic, sexual, and intimate relationships; I feel that it provides possibilities for whole communities, and is independent of whether individuals are choosing monogamous or non-monogamous relationships. And, I’m excited to explore that together with some extraordinary people!


Ian MacKenzie and another friend of mine, John Wolfstone, have been making a documentary, The Healing Of Love, inspired by the Tamera project in Portugal. Tamera is an intentional community, a functioning example of people experiencing relationships from a place of consent and radical honesty. Please go check it out and support their project by sharing the word!