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

Canadian geese are 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 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.

Advertisements

Coupling, and Its Inescapable Privilege

A lot has been said, in Poly literature, about something called Couple Privilege, and about something called Hierarchy. The two are commonly perceived to be a package deal, and certainly the way many people talk about them, that’s understandable.

However, I’ve noticed a concerning trend to consider them as the same thing; I recently read a lovely piece by a married woman about how she and her husband didn’t have couple privilege because they didn’t have a hierarchical relationship. I fully respect the place she was coming from, but I felt inspired to examine these concepts again for myself, as something just felt off for me.

I’ll be honest- the first time I heard about Couple Privilege, I tuned out. I just didn’t get it. It’s only in the last few months, as I’ve grown deeper into a relationship with a married man, as I’ve been studying relationship and intimacy from a counsellor’s perspective, and as I’ve seen this topic come up multiple times in the Solo Polyamory group on Facebook, that I feel I’ve started to really grok what this is all about.

What Couple Privilege Is:

The culturally entrenched priority, and measure of value, given to couples by society, both in public perception of them, and the legal status of them.

hisnherstowelsCouple Privilege doesn’t just refer to the legal rights of married or common law partnerships. It goes beyond the right to visit your partner in the hospital, or be legally included in their inheritance even if they didn’t leave a will. It’s more than the financial benefits of being able to file your taxes together. It’s something that is also entrenched in the way that we are taught to see couples. Successful coupling is seen as a milestone in the process of being “grown up”.

In short, it’s what gay and lesbian couples have been fighting to attain the right to have in the USA and many other countries around the world.

What Couple Privilege Is Not:

Couple Privilege is not something that couples can opt in or out of. Just as you cannot lose male privilege whilst being a man, or lose white privilege when you get a summer tan, you cannot select out of couple privilege if you are coupled.

Couple Privilege is not the same as hierarchy, even though the two are often conflated. They are two separate, often co-existing, phenomenon.

What Hierarchy is:

The prioritising of one relationship over another.

If you have a child who you are responsible for, they become the primary focus in your life. If you have a spouse or partner you share financial commitment with, they will be higher a priority than a partner who you don’t live with, have children with, or share finances with. Plain and simple. Hierarchy is implicit, I believe, when you move in with someone, marry someone, or have a child with them.

What Hierarchy Is Not:

Though often considered to go hand in hand, Hierarchy does not mean Veto Power.

Veto Power is a construct that many therapists have recommended to couples opening up their relationship. It is when your spouse can decide you cannot have a relationship with someone else, regardless of your own feelings and desires, because they have said so. Veto Power is an approach to maintaining boundaries and preserving the primary relationship, but I think there are ways to create relationship rules and sculpt boundaries that are far more consensual for everyone involved, including the secondary, non coupling partners.

I’ve met many couples with relationship rules, and have often been informed of their rules very clearly before engaging in anything relationship or intimacy wise with them, yet I have not encountered many couples with Veto Power. Maybe that’s a statistical blip, or perhaps Veto Power is not as prevalent as it once was.

Wait- Is There Such A Thing As Solo Privilege?

solodateAs Western society experiences a surge in popularity of individualism and celebration of the Solo individual, there is a romanticism about the freedom of the Solo Person that arguably gives them some privileges couples do not enjoy. In the polyamorous world, for example, a solo person can “pass” or even be out publicly far more readily than someone who is coupled.

Arguably, this is actually because of Couple Privilege: we value the unit of the couple so much, that anything that challenges that would threaten the ‘fabric of society, and so it makes it hard for couples to come out. And, on the flip side of that, a person who is solo is simply seen as “not coupled yet”, and so their non-monogamous relationships can be more readily dismissed as “Oh they just haven’t found the one yet!”

Single, non-coupled people, can experience a struggle to be recognised as successful and competent adults by their families, friends, and work peers. They can also have a more challenging time financially, supporting a home on a single income and receiving none of the tax benefits that couples do.

How Couple Privilege and Hierarchy Are Different:

1. You don’t have to be coupled to have Hierarchy. For many solo people there is a hierarchy too- its our self-relationship first.

2. Couple Privilege is something awarded you and your coupling partner by Society. You have no choice about this. The moment you display signs of being a couple, you have attained a new level of privilege. What you do have free choice over, is how to react and relate to your own privilege.

Aggie Sez, the author of Solo Poly, has written (in an unpublished comment to an article conflating Couple Privilege and Hierarchy):

“Relationship hierarchy boils down to default, competitive decision making. That is, where people in separate but overlapping relationships have differing needs and wishes, this gets framed as a competition to be won, or as a potential threat to be controlled. It’s mostly a foregone conclusion who will “win” based on how the people/relationships involved are “ranked” — typically according to the nature or duration of those relationships. More life-entwined relationships (such as a cohabitating legal marriage) usually tend to get higher rank. But you could have a poly network where no one is legally married or living together, yet still practice hierarchy among the various relationships involved (though none of those relationships would have social couple privilege).”

So, Hierarchy is something you have more of a choice about, and it feeds into your decision making process. Hierarchy is implicit in most circumstances, but in different ways. It is really only limited to one linear measure if you’re attached to the rules of monogamy. For example, a relationship anarchist might have four different relationships that take priority in different ways at different times: one for longevity, one for cohabitating, one that is long distance (when they come into town), and one for it’s newness and novelty.

Screen-shot-2013-05-06-at-9.42.23-AM

Being single in a sea of couples is not always easy.

Okay, So Now What?

What you can do, if you are part of a Couple, is be aware of both the legal benefits and the social status advantage you enjoy through your relationship, and ‘check your privilege’. What does that look like? Well, you can consider, where do you benefit from being coupled, in a way that your solo friends don’t? Knowing that, how can you be conscious and aware of this and demonstrate this in your actions. You can be an ally to people who are Solo, and be an ally to the other partners your partner has.

Like with Couple Privilege, if you are in a relationship that has some inherent Hierarchy (such as living close versus living long distance, or working together versus not) you can still mitigate the aspects of Hierarchy you are uncomfortable with. You can work to establish an egalitarian base for your relationships, splitting time equally, sharing calendars with all partners, actively working towards more balance in your relationship. For example, if you are uncomfortable with your nesting partner taking priority over your non-nesting partner, you need to consider how to balance this. You could arrange sleepovers when your live-in partner has a date at one of their partner’s homes.

It’s also important, even for non-coupled people, to be aware of how they play into the scripts around couple privilege. When meeting two people who appear to be a couple, do you ever make assumptions about them, and their relationship style?

This approach to combating both the effects of Couple Privilege and Hierarchy is the basis of many of the writings of Franklin Veaux, the book More Than Two, and indeed, much of what I think of as the “second wave” of literature on polyamory. It is an approach that generally considers Couple Privilege and Hierarchy to be constructs that do more harm than good in practices of honest non monogamy.

new-paradigm-ahead

We are now experiencing an emerging “third wave” of poly theory. Drawing from the principles of Relationship Anarchy (‘RA’) of love, trust, and customizing your commitments, and with a focus on healthy self-relationships, couples are emerging who have firmly eschewed as much of their Couple Privilege as they can whilst still remaining coupled, and Solos are discovering ways of having aspects of coupled relationships, enjoying some of the societal endowed privileges whilst abstaining from the legal and community restrictions associated with it. With less focus on trying to ‘balance the scales’ of Privilege and Hierarchy, the RA-inclined non monogamists and polyamorists tend to not fight the aspects of each construct, and rather, they embrace them. Intimate networks, that can include couples, singles, triads, friendships, and long term relationships unbound by rules, are an emerging frontier in radical relationshiping.

I definitely fall into this latter category; my polycule is a social network of its own, with many diverse approaches to non monogamy represented within it, varying relationship rules, agreements, and structures. We are in exciting new territory of discovering what long term non-monogamy, completely outside of the monogamy paradigm, might look like. And I find that quite exciting.