Ethical non-monogamy is the umbrella term for relationship styles which do not fit conventional monogamy. It includes swinging, open relationships and perhaps the best known polyamory. It is not unsual for people to discover that they are interested in non tradional (within a western white cultural traditions) forms of relationships after they have entered into monogamous, or closed relationship. There is nothing wrong with this, indeed it can often be a reflection of a healthy and positive relationship that we feel able to open up about our wants, needs and desires.
However I feel growing disquiet at how often these conversations seem to be framed about one person wanting to open their relationship, and another being blamed, shamed or emotionally manipulated into agreeing.
Doing the work
This process often gets described as “doing the work”. Apparently “no” is seen as something which of itself is not enough, people have instead to do the work to turn the no into a yes
NO IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE
I say this so many times working with clients in different contexts that I may make it my next tattoo
NO IS A COMPLETE SENTENCE
We need to talk about poly because poly has a consent problem, and whilst I think I know some of the origins I am aware that for many the idea of doing the work is so ingrained, has been so drilled into them that the idea no is enough may seem like heresy. So, consider this example of another, perhaps better known way of expanding a relationship.
Dick would like to have children, He really feels the need to be a parent and feels great sadness at the thought of spending the rest of his life without fulfilling this need. This has changed from when he first got married, when he was quite sure fatherhood was not something he would ever want.
Jane, his spouse, does not want children, they are very sure of this, and their views have not changed since they married.
Dick tells Jane the veto on having children is unfair, and that it may come from issues in their own childhood. He wants them to work on their resistance, and agree that it is wrong of them not to want children. He suggests Jane find a counsellor to work on their block to having children.
Sound familar? It may well to many people whose partners have wanted to open up a relationship.
No is a complete sentence
A few caveats, I am not saying talking about what we want in a relationship is a bad thing, that we should hide our needs, that compromise is a negative. I am saying that the ways used to erase consent within poly worry me, and often seem to be abusive.
Poly is not more evolved
Let us return to our couple Dick and Jane. Jane is still resistant, and to be honest, quite frustrated and upset that Dick’s ideas about their relationship have changed so much. Dick suggests that they need to leave “old” ideas behind, embrace the new. He has evolved in his thinking, and rather than being stuck in the past Jane needs to move with the times
At the risk of a second heresy. It is not more advanced, sophisticated, evolved, or anything else to be non- monogamous. It doesn’t indicate a deeper spirituality, self awareness or level of development. Like most things relationship styles exist on intersecting axis, and, its most likely that just like gender, sexuality and erotic orientation, relationship orientation is biopsychosocial – that is a mix of nature, nurture and cultural/societal factors.
If one person is mono because they are forced to be, afraid of their desires, scared of slut shaming or rejection by friends and family, there is a lot they can do to be their authentic self. In fact if they do not “do the work” of discovering the relationship style which might work best for them, it is likely they will struggle to be content in their relationships. Counselling with a culturally competent and trained therapist can undoubtedly help unpick the beliefs and fears which are barriers to living their authentic life.
If one person is mono because that is the relationship style which works for them, which makes them happy and which they want to remain in, getting them to change is an act of abuse and asking them to change may be abusive, dependent on how the question is posed.
No is a complete sentence
Another example –
Jane wants to explore pegging, they find it an intensely erotic experience and wants Dick to bottom. Dick finds the idea hot, but is nervous, worried about poop, pain, and has some quite common hangups about it meaning he isn’t as straight as he thought.
Dick and Jane talk, he does some reading about sexuality, and they agree safe words, size of strap on, he buys a douche. When the big night arrives however, he feels he cannot go through with it. Would it be OK for Jane to say he just has to “cope” with his feelings, and pegging, because to veto what they want is wrong? Would it be OK for Jane to peg him anyway, saying that he is responsible for his feelings and he should not try to control their actions because he is upset?
No is a complete sentence
How did we get here?
Really vital work has been done by those who challenged heteronormative assumptions, the shoulds which burden so many of us, slut shaming and the relationship escalator. Without this work many people would remain trapped in thinking which prevented them from building happy and healthy relationships. However when one of the most famous, and widely read books on ethical non-monogamy was co-authored by someone whose behaviour towards their partners was highly abusive, *I believe we need to consider how many abusive behaviours have been normalised within poly. I am very aware that the writers of On Light and Shadow have not requested a boycott of Franklin’s work . That is their right. As a therapist with many clients from the gender, sexuality and relationship diverse communities though I have an ethical duty to prevent harm, and I believe his works continue to cause harm.
I am going to quote from Light and Shadow – content notes for emotional, financial, psychological and sexual abuse.
The women’s experiences indicate that Franklin has patterns of manipulation, gaslighting, and lying; leverages his multiple partners against one another; tests or ignores boundaries; pathologizes his partners’ normal emotions and weaponizes their mental illnesses; exploits women financially; uses women’s ideas and experiences in his work without permission or credit; grooms significantly younger, less experienced, or vulnerable women; lacks awareness of power dynamics and consent; has involved women in group sex and other sexual activities that they experienced as coercive; and accepts no responsibility for the harm he causes by engaging in these behaviors — often blaming other women, or the harmed women themselves, for that harm.
I have highlighted “pathologises partners normal emotions” because in More Than Two particularly, but in a number of other “how to” guides I consistently see perfectly normal responses being treated as the issue. Now I am not saying that jealousy, insecurity, fear of abandonment are healthy, or positive emotions. I am saying that they are perfectly normal, and to blame, shame, or say that someone must deal with them in a “put up or shut up” manner, is abusive.
A question I rarely see posed in poly circles –
Why is it the job of mono person to change how they feel and not the job of the poly person to change how they behave – if it is the behaviour which is causing pain?
The more I consider this question the more it feels to me that the fact that one of the seminal works of poly was written by a domestic abuser matters – because this pattern is part of the cycle of abuse.
I am sorry but if you would have just… is a common form of victim blaming in intimate partner violence. It puts the blame for the behaviour on the victim rather than the perpetrator, and in doing so seeks to excuse the behaviour, and any pain it has caused as self inflicted.
This quote about the Game Changer discusses this idea of distress being self inflcited, and something that one could choose to overcome
Franklin depicts himself at the center of a universe that revolves around him, in which his relationships with women are primarily premised on their fuckability-to-hassle ratio. Despite his preoccupation with the psychology of his women characters (“what do women want?”), Franklin provides only the shallowest explanations for their thoughts and actions. As Eve noted in a later reflection, Franklin “…treats the things that upset me as these mysterious, unpredictable things (‘bitches be crazy’) instead of things he can understand and incorporate into his worldview and future behaviour.” [Eve, journal entry, March 11,2018]. In MT2, women’s problems are also reduced to a set of unreasonable insecurities and fears, which they could overcome if they “chose” to do soMy Life Belongs to Me”: Reading the Polyamory Narratives of Franklin Veaux Against the Relationship Testimony of Two of His Ex-Nesting Partners
Poly has a consent problem because many of the men who have been leading lights in the world of poly do not value either consent, or the feelings of others. If we continue to pretend that books written as a virtual how to guide of gas lighting and emotional manipulation are not deeply toxic then poly will continue to have a consent problem. Since far more people are likely to encounter More Than Two on Amazon than wil ever attend a poly workshop where more nuanced, and challenging ideas might be explored, we need to take action rather than allow the situation to remain as it is.
There would be little point in me writing this is it was just to throw my hands in the air and cry that it was all too difficult. There have to be solutions as well as pointing out the problems, so what do I believe these might be?
Firstly no means no has to become a poly mantra – will that be hard for some people, undoubtedly, will some relationships end, yes. It is abusive to demand that you not only have your cake, eat it, but that a starving partner die more quietly of starvation in the corner because it is spoiling your enjoyment of the cake.
Mixed orientation marriages, relationships and polycules most certainly can work. Recently Phillip Schofield came out in the UK and many people became aware for the first time that gay people can be in happy and fulfilling relationships with straight partners. Poly people can be in happy and fulfilling relationships with mono partners – but imagine if Phillip had demanded that his wife become a lesbian? Now that may sound a slightly over the top example, and I admit it is, but it is clear we would not expect it. Furthermore if his wife was unable to cope and the relationship ended, we would, I hope not blame her for her feelings. Nor should be blame someone who realises that they need to live as their authentic self, which is at the heart of the work which I do as a therapist. What we can, and indeed must call out, is demands that someone else compromise their authentic self to keep someone else happy. As a poly affirmative therapist my role is as much to point out the compromises as it is to challenge the tendrils of heteronormativity and mononormativity which may be holding someone back.
Sometimes we change so much within a relationship that we cannot remain and stay true to who we have become, sometimes a partner changes so much that we have to accept our time together has come to an end. Hopefully this can be done lovingly without blame or shame. Sometimes we realise that with communication and an acceptance that our behaviour has an impact on those we love we can find a new model of relationships which works for all parties. Hope is an eternal flame which we need to believe in. However when we forget that no is a complete sentence, that it is not the job of partners to excuse or enable hurtful behaviour, then we run the risk of replicating the kind of abuse which leaves pain in its wake.
*editorial note – In the original published version of this I did not make clear that Eve Rickert was co- author of More Than Two and in doing so colluded in the erasure of Eve, and the important contributions she has made to thinking around ethical non monogamy. This erasure is part of the way she was harmed and so I would not only like to apologise for unconsciously replicating the dominant cultural narrative but also unequivocally assert her right to be recognised as an author of MT2