The PolyBureau
by Alan Wexelblat

Eating is cheating
or, The Rules of the Game, part I

Last time I opined that WIITWD (What It Is That We Do) as polyamorous people has nearly as many varieties as there are people who practice it. This time I'm going to look at two of the fundamental principles that guide poly. This is not a question of what behaviors people engage in; rather, it's more of a definitional issue. As in, if you don't believe this, you're probably not poly.

The first rule is pretty simply stated:

People are not property.

Now this sounds sufficiently self-evident that most of the people I tell this principle to just nod in agreement. They, too, believe this. Of course, we all like to think of ourselves as enlightened individuals and few of the people reading this column wish for the days when, or live in societies where, a man owned his wife and could beat or rape her as he pleased. But that's not what I'm talking about here.

I am not claiming that people who believe people-are-property treat their spouses or SO's poorly. Nor am I claiming this mind-set is limited to men -- women practice it as well. It's so common we're hardly aware of it, except when it erupts into violence.

I believe we are fooled by our language. We speak of 'my' girlfriend in just the same way as we speak about 'my' house, 'my' rules, or 'my' shirt. This leads us to think of them in much the same sense. When we own something, it can be taken from us: if someone starts to date the same person we are dating then something has been taken from us.

Some people, unfortunately, take this attitude literally and it sometimes expresses itself in violence. But even with a less literal sense of possession, people still often treat their loved ones as property. They believe that this person, and this person's affections, belong to them and see any diversion of these things as a theft.

Poly people don't tend to believe this. The essence of this poly principle is that love is a gift freely given. No one is owed love, no one owns it. Likewise, no one owns the lover any more than anyone owns the loved one. If my lovers are with me (physically or in mind) then it is because that is what they have chosen. If they are with someone else as well, that is also a matter of choice.

In some ways, this begins to look like 60s-era "free love." But that ideal was about a new form of society at large, wherein everyone would love everyone. By contrast the modern polyamorous notion of freedom is more individual: each person is free to express his or her emotions, without being constrained to own or be owned by another human being.

This principle may also hold outside of polyamory. It is certainly possible for people to freely choose a single person without necessarily being owned by that person. However, it is not possible to entertain the idea of polyamory without this principle of non-ownership. This difference in mind-set often makes it hard for monogamous and polyamorous people to communicate -- I am often asked questions like "How can you let someone date your girlfriend?" I cannot answer without first stepping back and trying to help the questioner understand that under the first poly principle the question is almost nonsense.

I do not "let" other people date my girlfriends; similarly I do not "let" my girlfriend date other people. What she does is a result of believing in the first principle -- she is not my property to be constrained. Therefore, if she dates someone else it is an expression of her honest feelings within the rules we've chosen for our lives. And that brings me to the second principle:

Polyamory is not cheating.

Every couple or polyamorous group has its own rules. Sometimes, as in a polyfidelitous relationship, those rules state that members of the group do not date or form relationships outside the family. Other times, as in an open relationship, the partners are free to date whomever they choose.

The point is not what the particular rules are, so much as the acknowledgment that there are rules. Even if the rule is a simple "don't ask, don't tell" kind of thing, poly cannot work without an agreement among all the participants that the rules are such-and-such and we're going to follow them.

This means, of course, that it is possible to cheat in a polyamorous relationship. I know people who have done it, just as I know people who have cheated in monogamous relationships. However, polyamory itself does not automatically equal cheating. This can be very hard to explain, particularly in a situation where a poly person approaches someone who doesn't understand the rules. I have found it more than worth my time to make sure up-front that the other person knows that what I'm proposing is not cheating.

Of course, there was the woman who turned me down because she could deal with the concept of cheating but could not cope with the idea of polyamory. Takes all kinds...

One question that often arises is what kinds of rules? I tried to cover some of this ground in my previous column on different kinds of poly. The kind of poly one practices is often simply a shorthand label for the set of rules one chooses to live by. However, even within specific forms of polyamory, there are many variants. For example, I know polyfidelitous groups where members are permitted to form serious relationships if everything is discussed and agreed upon beforehand and other polyfidelitous situations where anything more than a one-night stand is a no-no.

Much of the confusion in this area comes from the fact that monogamy and its associated notion of "forsaking all others" is our social default. If a person is in a standard monogamous marriage, there is often little or no need to spell out rules. Behavior is governed by socially defined defaults. Even within monogamous societies those defaults vary a great deal: Americans are shocked when it is revealed that their President has had an affair; the French accept it as a matter of course that the Prime Minister's mistress will attend his funeral in public.

Bottom line: What matters is not the particular rules -- except to the people involved -- but that there are rules. In modern society, it is possible to say "We are monogamous" and assume therefore A and B and C follow, are understood, and need not be stated. It is impossible to do the same for poly. All you can know is that a poly relationship will have rules. And under those rules, eatin' may indeed be cheatin'.

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Copyright © 1996-2001 Alan Wexelblat
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.

Last modified: Wed Jan 15 06:50:56 2003