Polyamory and flexibility

Over the last week, I’ve had a couple different conversations with poly friends of mine where they expressed a similar idea: “Now that I’m poly, I find I’m not making plans more than a year or two down the road, because you never know what will happen.” It was an interesting point and got me thinking. The friends I was talking to all came to polyamory by opening up a monogamous marriage, so for them, there was a time when the future seemed more predictable. Monogamous marriage (or intentional long-term partnership) brings a certain stability: while jobs and education and health might be up in the air, you can make plans around your home and future with the assumption that the needs and preferences you both have are the deciding factors. You can look down the road, based on what you know about yourself and your partner, and make some pretty solid predictions about what kind of plans will suit the two of you in the long term.

By leaving open the possibility of falling in love and sharing a life with another person — somebody you haven’t even met — polyamory destabilizes this kind of long-term planning. Just about this time last year, I went to visit my newish friend Galia at her apartment, and we talked about how happy she was there and how much she loved her housemates. They had a cute little picture on the fridge that she had made, of great things that come in threes. While none of them were ready to make a ten-year plan, they were happy and stable together and didn’t foresee making any big changes in the near future.

It's still on our fridge because it's awesome.

It’s still on our fridge because it’s awesome.

Well, then one of her housemates and I fell in love and we all moved to a bigger place so I could live with them. Destabilizing influence, right here! And while our household is basically the best and I hope we all live together forever, I never think about the future without keeping in mind that any of the four of us could, again, fall in love with somebody and want to share a home with them, which would again change our situation one way or another. I would never want to keep Galia or Claire or Greg from sharing a home with somebody they loved, just because I like what we have here now. And even if we all click and want to keep living together, a new person may have needs and preferences around where they live, and what kind of home they want, that we’ll need to work into our decisions. So there are a lot of built-in question marks when I think about the future.

It’s natural to want stability and predictability about your future — I certainly do. And a lot of poly people find ways to grasp at it. Polyfidelity, where there are multiple adults in the household but they’re not open to seeking new partners, is one such way… another is strict hierarchy, where you put limits on how much a new partner is able to impact your lives. These approaches allow people to feel like they know who is going to be shaping their future, and ensure that new people won’t have a too disruptive effect on the life they’ve built.

I also suspect that the stability aspect is a big reason some people choose monogamy; the value of getting to pursue multiple relationships just isn’t worth the trade in stability. That’s a totally reasonable decision; since becoming poly, I’ve had moments of wondering for myself whether the trade-off is worth it to me. So, while I’m about to start praising the value of planned instability, I want to make it clear that I don’t think preferring stability and predictability is a bad thing. A certain level of stability is necessary for all of us to function, and some people have a higher threshhold, and that’s fine.

I think there’s a lot of value in stretching my comfort zone around instability, and I really appreciate the way polyamory nudges me in that direction. Mostly because a planned and stable future is pretty much an illusion anyway. Another conversation I’ve had a couple of times lately is about divorce, and how one of the things you mourn during a divorce is the future you planned on having. Which is silly, because that future never existed… it was only ever real in your mind. But it’s also deeply not silly, because things that are real in your mind are real. Our dreams and plans for the future are vital parts of who we are today — I wouldn’t know how to give mine up, even if I thought it was a good idea.

But I do best when I think of the future less as a contract I’ve made with the world — “if I hold up my end and walk steadily down this path, the future I planned will be at the end of it” — and more as a way of expressing my needs, wishes, and values. When I think of the future as something I can plan and map a route toward, I feel crushing disappointment and confusion when I fail to get there, or when something unexpected makes the route impassable. When I think of it more as a way of saying, “This is what’s important to me, this is a way I can imagine being happy and fulfilled down the road,” then I can weather change and disappointment more gracefully. I can take stock of my new circumstances, and dream up a new way of being happy and fulfilled that fits with them. The needs, wishes, and values that were at the heart of my former future plan don’t change (necessarily)… I just find a new way of expressing them.

I say it like it’s easy, but it’s not, for me. I’m still very prone to latch onto a single vision of the future like a security blanket. That’s why I appreciate the built-in instability of polyamory. If I were monogamous, or in a more rigid form of poly, I’d find it easier to ignore the possibility that my carefully built plans could be thrown off by an unforeseen event. Living in a home with four poly adults, though, I’d be foolish not to expect the unexpected. And being prepared for change in the shape of someone’s new lover helps me also be ready for any other changes that may come down the road. My security comes from knowing that I’m loved, that the people closest to me will be kind and considerate to me, whatever changes may come, and ultimately, that I have the will and the resources to take care of myself.

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