In the four months since my most recent break up, I’ve done massive amounts of personal growth.
When I first came to poly, it was because I fell in love with a friend who was already in a long-distance polyamorous relationship. I did a lot of work to learn about poly to be with her and even went to therapy to work through some of my jealousy and insecurity issues. I thought some of the problems I had with the relationship were due to my being new at poly, but there were actually legitimate needs which weren’t being met. It turns out that we just weren’t compatible emotionally, but I left that relationship with the knowledge that I wanted to have polyamorous relationships in the future, regardless of who I would date.
Soon after, I met someone else who had been in polyamorous relationships for over a decade. We started dating, and since I had only had one previous poly relationship, I ended up deferring to him in a lot of ways, assuming he knew more and had done more trial and error to figure out what worked and what didn’t in poly relationships. I didn’t think there was one best way to do polyamory, necessarily, but he was definitely set in a particular style and I went along with it, not realizing at the time that I didn’t have to do so. We had similar viewpoints in a lot of areas, and I thought the places that we disagreed didn’t matter that much. I was wrong.
Currently, I’m dating someone who is new to poly themselves and experienced my first breakup while having other partners. While initially I thought that kind of relationship wouldn’t be good for me, and had thought I would stay away from people who were just starting out on their poly journeys, it really has been great. Because this person doesn’t have firm ideas about how they want to do poly, I have had the freedom to really consider what I want out of my relationships moving forward, and to develop my own style instead of trying to fit into someone else’s.
I’ve always been skeptical of hierarchy and tried to avoid it. But since the break up, I’ve been thinking a lot about where I fall on the asexual spectrum, and about valuing my non-sexual poly relationships. In the past, I fell into this trap of thinking that “dating” meant having sex, and that was how I differentiated between “relationships” and friendships. Now I have more space in my life to value the emotionally meaningful relationships in my life that are non-sexual, and to think about going on friend dates and cultivating intimacy that way.
My best friend and I consider each other queerplatonic life partners, and I don’t think my last partner understood or valued that relationship because it wasn’t sexual. He was a highly sexual person, and somehow his Tindr hook ups took up more conversational space in our relationship than this deeply meaningful emotional relationship in my life. Part of that might be due to safer sex practices, STI concerns, and the like, but after the break up I was left wondering why sexual relationships were valued the most, and how to cultivate relationships where everyone in my life is valued, regardless of what kind of relationship we have.
After that break up, my relationship with this new-to-poly person has strengthened and deepened. At one point I was asked how many partners I have. At first, I thought the question was how many sexual partners I have had in my life, but the question was actually how many people am I currently in a relationship with? And I realized I have no idea how to answer the latter question. Or rather, that there are several different answers depending how you define “partner.”
If partner means a deep, emotional, life-long friendship, then three local and two far away.
If partner means those I consider to be a part of my local poly family, then seven to eleven (do I count the partner’s of my partner’s partners?).
If partner means close friendships – the people I will carve out time to see as often as I can, regardless of where they live, then fifteen.
If partner includes all the people I am friends with that I want to get to know better but we’re all busy and timing just hasn’t been right, then…. 20? 30?
If partner includes the strange intimacies developed with housecleaning clients, then add another five to the last list.
If partner means people I engage in sexual activity and/or non-sexual BDSM activities with, then three.
And these tallies are just for today. They will likely change in a week, or a month, or a year from now, as people come and go, and move to different lists.
I have seventy people on my Close Friends list on Facebook, which includes all the people I want to keep tabs on because I care about what happens in their lives, and thirty people on an e-mail update list to whom I send out semi-annual updates because they aren’t local but I want to stay connected to their lives. There is overlap between the lists, of course, but do those people count as partners?
If “How many partners do you have?” means, “How many people are important to you?” then the number is huge. If “How many partners do you have?” means, “How many nights do you have free in a week?”, well that depends. To a certain extent, I can make room if I want to. This is why I think I’m coming around to the idea that I’m really a relationship anarchist. If you are asking if there’s room in my life for you, that’s a completely different question which doesn’t have as much to do with who else is in my life as you think. Instead of asking me how many partners I have, why not try asking for what you want from me, and whether I have room for that and interest in it? I know it must feel scary, but that feels like more of a conversation we could actually have.
I’m an introvert, so there’s a limited amount of close, face-to-face friendships I can sustain, that’s true. But “partner” and “relationship”….. those words are far too nebulous in my mind to be able to assign a definitive number of people to either of them. If you want to know whether or not or how much you matter to me, well, that’s a whole different conversation entirely, and one I’m happy to have. But whether my dance card is full depends on whether people even want to go dancing; not everyone who matters to me does, and I won’t always want to, either. Not only do we need new words to define relationships. We need new ways to talk about them which value all the different varieties, and which don’t value some activities more than others.