by Alan Wexelblat
One of the biggest problems facing poly people today is a lack of support structures, such as those available to non-poly folks. These structures range from simple acknowledgement of our existence as members of legitimate relationships to complex legal rights and responsibilities around shared property, inheritance, children, and medical care.
Some of these problems can be handled by creating formal structures, usually based in contract law. For example, non-married people sharing property such as a house can create a contract called a "Tenancy in Common" agreement. This document specifies the rights and responsibilities of each partial owner of a property. Many medical institutions provide and recognize documents such as "Health Care Proxies," which permit one person to designate another as the authority in making health care decisions if the first person becomes sick, injured or incompetent and cannot make decisions for him- or herself.
Generally in the United States it is possible to dispose of your property after death in any way you wish, as long as your will is properly written. As with all legal documents you might want to stand up in court some day, I recommend getting your will reviewed by a lawyer. You can get more advice and information from the Alternatives to Marriage Project.
Unfortunately, children complicate the legal picture significantly. Our society is strongly set up to favor a one-mother, one-father, married-to-each-other situation. Anyone who deviates from that -- even unmarried monogamous couples -- may find themselves in problematic situations when dealing with the child's issues: schooling, health care, residency, etc.
Some of these situations can be taken care of on a case-by-case basis. For example, many schools and day-care centers will allow the child's parent to designate other responsible adults who are allowed to pick up the child in case mom or dad can't, or who can be phoned in an emergency if mom/dad are unavailable. If you want your partners to be able to take the child on trips, it is simple to write a letter (signed and notarized) specifying that you, as the child's parent, give your permission for the child to be traveling with so-and-so.
These are not total answers. Many situations can arise in which a polyamorous lifestyle or poly relationships can cause problems with "polywogs" (my term for children of poly situations). This topic is worth a column unto itself.
In addition to creating formal structures, we can make use of informal ones. Informal structures are the ones we get from our friends and family, from the people we meet and interact with casually on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, for most of us, the vast majority of those people have no idea what being poly is about. The attitudes we encounter range from the benignly ignorant to the openly hostile. I don't expect to change anyone's mind by writing this column, but I do want to share my experiences and reactions.
I believe that with luck and perseverance we can get people to understand and possibly even support us. I believe that social change happens not by mandate but by changes in attitudes which percolate up from the bottom. If the people lead, the government will follow. So, let's look at some of the attitudes and reactions and how to handle them.
An attitude that I often encounter from supposedly supportive acquaintances is what I call the It's a phase syndrome. These are the people who nod understandingly and say things like "Oh, yes, I dated several people at once when I was in college." The assumption, of course, is that we're just going through a phase or that we're a little slower at maturing socially than the speaker.
I've been asked when I was going to "grow up," going to "settle down," going to "make a choice." All these from basically well-meaning, nice folk. For these people, poly was something to be done when young, when in college, or when goofing off. But, of course, at some point they expected they would meet The Right One and marry and be with that person alone for ever and ever amen.
In no case could the speakers understand why I was so upset with their attitude. Well, here's a big fat clue for y'all: I am grown up, I am as settled as I'm likely to get for a while, and I have made my choice. I don't believe that there is a One Right Person out there for me, or for a lot of other folks. Some people may in fact find this ideal and I'm happy to cheer for them -- and throw rice at them if that's what they want.
But for many others it's not a reality, it's something between a cruel hoax and a will-o-the-wisp, leading the chaser into ever-more-destructive realms. For many of us the reality is a delightful shifting set of allegiances, feelings, loves and adventures. This is our choice and it should be as respected as any other serious life choice.
It is true that there are people who use multiple relationships as a way to avoid commitment. There are also people who date just one person for long periods of time (and may even be engaged for years) and who similarly lack the will, desire or ability to commit. However, the existence of such people does not dictate the meaning of what I do.
We, as poly people, need to be forthright in confronting these people. We need to be taken seriously, to have our commitments recognized. There are no "poly pride" pins to wear (anyone know why?) but we can ourselves be sources of pride. This means gently, but firmly, correcting our friends' misapprehensions. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity or ignorance. Some folk really truly don't understand but want to; I hope this column helps some folks understand better.
Others will learn best not from some writing (mine or others) but from example. Patient explanation and personal demonstration can do more to change some peoples' minds than any speech, no matter how carefully crafted. This can be hard, because it may mean revealing more of your private life than you might like. It can mean being brutally honest with friends and hoping the friendship is strong enough to withstand such honesty. It can mean extending trust to people who may just turn around and gossip about you. Not every poly person can make such choices or is willing to make such sacrifices. But more than a few of us are.
There are, of course, also people who go beyond ignorant questioning into active opposition. There are people who take us seriously and hate us, or are at least upset by us. Some of them are of the "you're going to steal my husband/wife" kind. They have possibly deep insecurities about their own relationships. They complain about us "flaunting" our multiple relationships in tones of voice which suggest they are unhappy with their own relationships. Reacting to people like this with hostility is only going to be counter-productive. Likewise, trying to explain yourself is probably only going to frustrate you.
I've found that polite understanding often works. Reassure them to whatever degree your relationship with them allows. Explain the patently obvious -- no, I'm not going to steal your husband -- even if it is insulting to have them assume such things. Occasionally, you may find that if you get past the initial fears then they turn into genuinely curious people. They themselves may never be poly but they may grow to understand and accept who and what we are.
Finally, there are the people at whom the title of this column is directed. People who actively wish us ill for our lifestyle choices. To them, I think we can only respond as our queer brothers and sisters have taught us: get over it. Some peoples' minds are sufficiently made up that they cannot even be confused by facts that contradict their opinions. I feel that confronting such people directly is only going to cause more problems; my advice is to ignore such people and go on living your lives.
Obviously, this does not mean being a doormat for every obnoxious drunk at an office party. But pick your battles carefully and if you can simply walk away, do so. But by all means don't walk back into the closet. These people, too, will some day have to get used to the fact of our existence.
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Copyright © 1996-2001 Alan Wexelblat
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.
Last modified: Wed Jan 15 07:14:40 2003