haggis: (Celtic)
[personal profile] haggis
This epic rant was sparked by Gesa Mayer’s paper on XX at the Polyamory event at MMU on 21/02/16. I found the paper interesting but infuriating as you can see.

I am going to try and summarise Gesa’s paper based on my memory of the key points that jumped out at me. I want this summary to be fair so if you think I am off base, please let me know. I am going to use polyamory and non-monogamy interchangeably in this article.

Gesa’s paper proposed that one of the attractions of monogamy is that it makes romantic promises about relationships and she identified priority, exclusivity and complementarity as key romantic promises.

By comparison with these promises, polyamory is often explained as a lack. On one hand, polyamory is assumed to be caused by a lack (lack of good enough partners or a pathological need for more sex or affection etc than one partner can provide). On the other, it is accused of causing a lack, by splitting people’s time and attention or by damaging the primary relationship.

Gesa presented a mix of quotes from relationship counsellors espousing these views and from poly people challenging them. Her argument seemed to be that monogamy based on lack/scarcity and that in contrast polyamory abundance and sharing but she also noted that many of monogamy’s promises turned up in poly people’s description of their own lives.

I hope that’s a fair assessment of the paper and I can see it as being useful in challenging negative attitudes to non-monogamy. But I have three big problems with it.


1. The paper paid lip service to the idea of breaking down binaries but this was a pretty straightforward ‘poly yay, mono boo!’ paper and that was reflected in the way the author responded to questions about it. I raised a question about emotional labour (which I expand on below) but Gesa’s response just seemed to assert that poly would be better at balancing emotional labour needs than monogamy.

There was repeated references to mono-normativity. I assume mono-normativity is about assuming and enforcing monogamy as a default & social structures / institutions which do this (as an analogue to heteronormativity, which is about rejecting enforced heterosexuality and queer exclusion, NOT rejecting heterosexual people). However, in this paper and elsewhere in the conference, rejecting mono-normativity was clearly about rejecting anything tainted by monogamy, (in extreme cases including words like ‘love’!)

2. My more serious objection is to the idea that priority is a mono-normative promise that poly people should reject. My problem with this is that sometimes people need priority because they need committed, reliable support and rejecting the need for priority as ‘mono-normative’ means rejecting the people who need support.

Dependence (being in need of support from someone else) is simultaneously something that everyone will experience at some point and something that is hugely stigmatised in our society. Someone may need support for example, while raising children, due to disability or mental health problems or experiencing trauma, due to aging or while caring for someone else. This support can be financial, emotional or practical. The need may be short term, long term or even permanent.

In a mono-normative, heteronormative society, providing this support is strongly gendered as female and consistently devalued. In some cases, the purpose of the family is assumed to be to provide this support, between spouses and cross-generationally. External support is often rationed because it is considered the family’s duty to provide this care. Admitting that you are struggling to provide enough care or that the care is inadequate is often considered deeply shameful. This system of care provision is faulty, unfair and open to abuse but it does at least acknowledge that some people will need dedicated, reliable support.

I am not convinced that that needs are sufficiently recognised in non-monogamy, which often seems to be more comfortable talking about financially independent, emotionally independent young adults with no children, whose relationship needs are ‘someone to share my taste in leisure activities’. There is a glib formulation that ‘time is limited, love is infinite’, which was indirectly referenced in this paper. But care work is work and maintaining relationships is emotional labour. An individual’s capacity to do that work is limited, however infinite their love.

There is a brilliant discussion of emotional labour in (mostly heterosexual, mostly monogamous) relationships and society in this Metafilter Thread, helpfully condensed into this document . Emotional labour covers both relationship maintenance activities and logistical organisational activities. I am mostly going to talk about the relationship maintenance and support aspect.
The key points I took from this:

• Emotional labour are vital to making relationships, families, communities and societies function. Without emotional labour, relationships weaken and dissolve over time.
• Emotional labour takes time, effort, planning, organisation, emotional sensitivity and awareness of people’s needs and situations.
• Emotional labour is frequently assumed to be women’s responsibility. Women are likely to be more harshly punished and shamed for refusing/failing at emotional labour than men.
• Emotional labour is devalued and routinely dismissed. This includes minimising and mocking the work and the worker, demanding emotional labour while refusing to reciprocate and treating it as natural consequence of femaleness/femmeness.
• For many people, there is an ideal of emotional labour which is completely invisible and the results appear effortless (for example hosting a party). In this case, if emotional labour is visible, it has failed.
• Emotional labour can be skilful, satisfying and enjoyable, especially when it is recognised and valued.

Multiple relationships require multiple instances of emotional labour, both giving and receiving. This can be incredibly nourishing – forming a diverse network of care and mutuality which extends beyond partners to metamours and friendships. It is one of the glorious things about polyamory.

But where emotional labour is invisible and unvalued, this leads can lead to some individuals giving more emotional labour than they can sustain or being unable to ask for support because it feels like an unfair or excessive demand. (Equally, others may receive emotional labour from multiple partners without reciprocating. I am less concerned with the kind as this has not been my experience but it is a critique of polyamorous relationships I have seen.)

Returning to specifically providing emotional, physical or financial support, I am going to label this as ‘care work’. As noted with emotional labour, this is both satisfying to give and devalued by society. I am writing as someone who is predominantly (but not exclusively) the provider of care work in my relationships.

As discussed above, there is an assumption that people (especially women) must provide unlimited, effortless care work without complaint or have failed as partners. In a monogamous relationship, this demand is unreasonable but the impact is limited because there is a single partner. In polyamory, the desire to be a good partner and provide support to multiple people can lead to burnout and pain. If care work is not recognised and supported, this burnout is experienced as a shameful personal failure.

My personal experience – my husband is disabled and financially dependent on me. When we married, I chose to exchange promises that we would love and support each other for the rest of our lives. The support is not one-way – he loves and supports me in return. To quote this article, it is not a 50/50 split but we both provide 100% of what we can ).

I deeply, deeply love my other partners but Daz’s priority in my life is non-negotiable. This is both a moral choice to keep my promise to him and a time/energy/spoons limitation. I cannot give my other partners the day-to-day love and care that I give to D without depriving him or burning myself out. (I suspect that my relationships work because they are both effectively long-distance.)

My other partners have never given me a hard time about this. However, I have felt shamed by relationship anarchists who smugly tell me that their relationships are better, more radical because they are flexible, fluid and negotiated, with none of this nasty hierarchy stuff. I have internalised a deep guilt that I am not giving enough of myself to my other partners and that I am selfish or hurtful for prioritising Daz.

This was intensified by my own beliefs about relationships. I was brought up as a Christian and explicitly taught that I should strive to be like Christ in my relationships. This was a requirement to be endlessly giving, endlessly forgiving and endlessly willing to work and sacrifice for my loved ones. This neatly overlooks that Christ was the Son of God, with access to heavenly resources, validation and insight that I do not have! My teachers were well-intentioned but this was translated into a poisonous belief – if I did not give my partner everything I could, it proved I did not really love them and I was a bad, selfish person.

The presumed opposite of ‘hierarchical’ relationships (with crisply defined primary and secondary roles) is that relationship rules and roles should be flexible and negotiated. I am not against this in principle but in practice have been suspicious of it. I have finally managed to articulate the source of my suspicion – until recently, I was not capable of negotiating good boundaries for myself. I believed I should be capable of infinite, invisible emotional labour and therefore I did not recognise that I was allowed to struggle or to have needs. The idea that I could refuse to provide care work was unthinkable.

From the opposite point of view – I have seen critiques of poly communities where any admission of need, such as trauma or mental health problems is dismissed as being dramatic and demanding. Admitting to a need for support, a need to be prioritised in certain ways, a need for reliable, consistent, ongoing care is shamed as a personal weakness that we should get over in order to be dateable.

I emphasise again – my shame and guilt did not come from demands my partners made on me. But these ideas come from a society which devalues and makes invisible emotional labour and which fears and stigmatises dependence. This puts immense pressure on polyamorous individuals to square that circle by either providing infinite care without complaint or by minimising their needs.

3. I think there is also a conflict between the poly ideal of non-possessive relationships and an individual’s need for committed, reliable care. One example of this is a stay-at-home parent, who becomes financially dependent in the short term (and reduces their long term chances of financial independence) for the benefit of their child and partner(s). Another is the impact of long term disability – my wedding vows to D include a promise of mutual support. If our relationship breaks down, I will leave but I consider myself obliged to provide a final gift of financial support, in exchange for the ongoing support I will no longer provide. In these and many other cases, an individual’s wellbeing depends on long term, committed support from their partners.

I am not sure how to resolve this. Extracting support from partner who no longer wish to provide it is always a difficult, painful business. State-enforced monogamy is both helpful and unhelpful here - there is a general presumption that a couple’s assets should be split equally, there is a clearly defined start and end point of a marriage and heteronormative laws on childcare and child maintenance reflect the reality that most of the labour and costs of childcare are mostly borne by women. But the process is acrimonious and expensive because the state assumes its job is to force couples to stay together wherever possible. Many people chose polyamory deliberately to avoid this state involvement in their private lives.

However, I feel discussions of polyamory shirk the issue of long term support, preferring to focus on the happy relationships where all parties are mutually supportive. That’s great when it works but less helpful if you need an ongoing commitment or when the invisible emotional labour is unfairly divided. Polyamory can put people in a weaker position to negotiate the support they need because of the availability of other less demanding partners and because needing committed support is equated to possessiveness and ownership (which are frowned upon as mono-normative).

I don’t have an easy answer for this. It is easy to rail against people who demand unreciprocated emotional labour or who reject people with genuine needs. It is much harder to assess – what is a reasonable amount of emotional labour for me to ask for or give? What is fair to ask for in terms of commitment, knowing that feeling and circumstances change over time.

However, as someone who is happily polyamorous and has found it enriching and joyful, I think it is important to recognise that just like monogamy, polyamory makes romantic promises which it cannot fulfil and which lead people to internalise these broken promises as personal failures.
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