Heart farts – part 1/6: The poly time dilemma

If someone suppresses their own erotic level, it not only fosters the chronification of the patriarchal falsehood and, subsequently, Rape Culture, but also secondarily-motivated crushes on new people that the person in question probably would not have developed, or not as easily, had they pursued their sexual desires on the erotic level.

In serial monogamy which stands upon the monogamous falsehood, a wish for a romantic involvement with a new person terminates the pre-existing romantic relationship. Polyamory, however, means that multiple crushes or romantic relationships are possible at the same time. Therefore, the poly ideology stands upon the polyamorous falsehood: The pre-existing romantic relationship remains unchanged (for the moment) while the person who has fallen in love simply adds a romantic relationship with the new person.

As long as they believe in (or don’t openly question) the polyamorous falsehood, the new relationship network of three people remains romantically open. So if another one of the people in the existing polycule falls in love, they add this romantic involvement again, so that now, there are four connected people, either as couples or as metamours. And so on.

In polycules, this leads to constant scheduling problems due to the number of people involved. My boyfriend Nemo has created a mathematical model which I have termed the poly time dilemma:

Key for polycule figures

Key

A couple, a romantic relationship between two people

 

A couple’s relationship consists of two individuals: Person A and person B. All individuals involved in the couple are the same as those who comprise the whole system of relationships: There is only one mutual space. The complexity of the system is thus simply 1.

 

 

 

A poly triad, a polycule of three people

 

 

A triad is a polycule that consists of three individuals A, B and C in the form of a closed triangle.

  • It contains three couples: A+B, B+C, A+C.
  • The whole system of relationships is the triad: A+B+C.

The complexity of the system therefore is: 3×1 + 1 = 4.

 

 

 

The examples above do not have any metamour connections. The most frequent form that contains a metamour connection is the V, a polycule in the form of the letter V that consists of three individuals.

A V, another polycule of three people

 

It has to be divided into primary and secondary connections:

  • Primarily, it consists of two couples: A+B and B+C.

Secondary connections are:

  • The metamour connection A+C
  • The whole system of relationships A+B+C

The complexity, although there is one romantic relationship less than in a triad, is of equal magnitude: 2×1 + 1 + 1 = 4.

 

 

One can argue that metamours spend far less time together than romantic partners do, so why do they get the same weight as a romantic relationship? Anyone who barely speaks with their metamour can certainly round this factor down a bit. However, this value does not only count for the time and energy for direct contact between the metamours, but also for their impact on the connected romantic relationships. Judging from reports of the everyday life of people living in a polycule with a metamour, I derive 0.7 as the lowest value.

For example, the metamours person A and person C must be able to negotiate life decisions as their decisions are both dependent on person B, in order to keep the polycule stable. For this connection to work, they must spend time and energy as well, to build and maintain mutual trust. In addition, metamours contribute directly or indirectly to all conflicts around person B, such as when person A and B have a conflict, and person C cheers up person B afterwards, or when person A mediates in a conflict between person B and person C.

We can deduce that all polycules that consist of three people, irrelevant whether in a triad or in a V, will exhibit the fourfold complexity of a couple. This factor applies to all areas of life which need to occur in a loving romantic relationship: four times more time-consuming, four times the relationship work, four times as many relationship agreements, etc. The more people a polycule contains, the higher its complexity, and thus the necessity for time and energy rises.

This can be shown with an “N”, a polycule consisting of four individuals in the form of a row.

A N, a polycule of four people in a row

We have individuals A, B, C and D. This constellation primarily consists of three couples: A+B, B+C, C+D. So far, the complexity is only 3×1 = 3. However, there are secondary connections:

  • As metamour connections, the lines between A+C, B+D and A+D.
  • The whole system of relationships of all four individuals involved: A+B+C+D.

That results in a total complexity of: 3×1 + 3×1 + 1 = 7.

 

 

Even if we assume the lower value 0.7 for each metamour, and round down accordingly, the complexity is still 6 which means that it would require the sixfold time, relationship work and agreements of a couple.

If we now perform the thought experiment of a polycule with four individuals, who are not in relationships in the form of a row, but where the polycule completely consists of couples, the situation goes into overkill mode:

A square, a polycule of four people

 

Our example shows four individuals, and everybody is in a romantic relationship with everybody else. Every individual is in three romantic relationships. Thus there are no metamour connections, but six couples, four triads and of course one whole system of relationships:

  • Six couples: A+B, B+C, C+D, A+D, A+C and B+D
  • Four triads: A+B+C, B+C+D, A+B+D and A+C+D
  • And the whole system of relationships: A+B+C+D

The complexity is thus: 6×1 + 4×1 + 1 = 11.

 

 

This means that it would require the elevenfold time, relationship work and agreements of a couple. Even billionaires who do not have to work at all for their income could not invest that kind of time and resources on a long-term basis. If even further people are added to a poly network, its complexity might ascend to something that would need the hundredfold resources of a couple or more.

The poly ideology, however, claims that a polycule is expandable with further individuals ad infinitum and that this continual expansion is not only a beautiful experience for the individual who enjoys acting upon a new crush, but for all individuals in the polycule. There are numerous statements that polys use to justify this belief, but my personal favourite is the following:

“A relationship is like a candle in a dark room. The more candles I put there, the lighter the room will become and the more fulfilled will I be.”

As detailed above, this will neither work mathematically nor in real life. The realistic consequence of this attitude of an ever-romantically open relationship with ever-new partners is that the individuals involved will soon no longer have the time and energy to provide the attention and emotional work it would need to stay in love. Consequently, after a few weeks, initially energy-giving, loving relationships become largely exhausting, energy-draining connections, which fuel several energy-draining group dynamics between all individuals involved. To stay in the picture, there is not enough time to attend to all the burning candles, until, sooner or later, some flames simply go out, or one falls over and burns down the house.

Heart farts – part 2/6: What is a secondary relationship?

The poly community claims that there are two different basic types of romantic relationships:

  • The individuals involved grant one another equal rights: They are on equal footing concerning life decisions, like how they conduct their sex life, and where and how they live.

Parallel to this common and working concept, the poly community has invented a new type of romantic relationship:

  • The individuals involved perceive their connection as of a romantic kind, however, they do not grant one another equal rights concerning life decisions. They only need to tell each other about relationship-affecting decisions, and rely on their partner dealing with any consequences on their own.

For a person who does not want to engage in any primary relationship, but only in one or more secondary relationship(s), the poly community has coined the term solo-poly.

If a person, however, is in or aims to have relationships of both types at the same time, this lifestyle has been termed hierarchical polyamory, and they call their relationships by different names according to their type.

  • A romantic relationship with equal rights is called primary, or core relationship, and in the case of a joint household, nesting partner.
  • A romantic partner to which the same individual grants fewer rights than to their primary partner is called a secondary relationship or satellite.

The behaviour in a secondary relationship can differ by either some or all of the following points from that of a primary relationship:

  • At family visits or celebrations, company parties or public events, only the primary relationship is visible as a couple. The secondary relationship is either not invited at all, or is expected to hold back romantic actions, since only selected individuals or even nobody at all is to see the real state. A frequent lie is that the secondary relationship is introduced as a family member or as a good friend of their romantic partner.
  • The primary couple refers to themselves as “the couple” or “our relationship”. The individuals of that couple get angry if the secondary discloses their own romantic relationship in this way. As a consequence, the secondary stands as an individual besides a unit of two people who form the primary relationship. If there is a conflict about the secondary’s needs or boundaries, these rules make it easier for the individuals of the primary relationship to join ranks against the secondary person.
  • The primary couple decides on their own when the secondary relationship may spend time with their romantic partner, and what they may or may not do during their dates. The secondary relationship is presented with fixed time slots and what-to-do rules, and is given only the choice to take it or leave it.
  • The primary couple spends time with each other naturally, and without checking with anyone else while the secondary relationship must request each couple time beforehand. Sometimes they may not get any couple time, and may only see their romantic partner together with the primary partner. One version of this is when the primary partners are living together as nesting partners, and access their home with their keys, whereas the secondary does not get their own key. This makes them a perpetual guest at their romantic partner’s place since they have to ask every time before they can come over, while they watch their metamour just come and go as they please.
  • While the primary couple is making plans for the future, the secondary relationship neither has a say in these decisions, nor are they in a place to ever get it. The secondary partner has to adapt to their romantic partner’s lifestyle changes such as a move, a change of working place or hours, or child rearing plans without discussion.
  • If the secondary does not want to abide by the rules set out by the primary couple, they just don’t get any time with their romantic partner, regardless of their current needs.

A dominant claim of the poly community is that forming a secondary relationship is, as opposed to a primary relationship, a good choice for individuals who value being independent in their lifestyle choices since they don’t have to consider the needs and wishes of their partner before making a decision, and if in conflict, are able to give priority to their own wishes without discussion.

As an ex-poly, I disagree strongly. Now and then, some isolated voices within the poly community question this dogma, too. My argument is explained best in the following image:

Eternity bed with one big and one smaller mattress on top, both tiers decorated with cushions. A text below reads: “Poly bed: Secondaries sleep on the bottom row.”

 

It describes a realistic scenario in a polycule which consists of at least one primary and one secondary relationship, which is shown below.

A V-polycule with person B in its center, who is in a primary relationship with person A (on the left-hand side), and in a secondary relationship with person C (on the right-hand side)

Person A and person B, who are the primary relationship to each other, are cuddling on the top bed. In the most frequent case they are the chronologically oldest couple of the polycule, which I refer to as the original couple. Person C, as a secondary relationship, has to sleep alone or wait until the primary couple has finished, before it is their turn. The actual physical distance doesn’t make a difference: Whether the primary and secondary relationship(s) are segregated by a bed or by city does not change the given scenario and its outcome.

I can imagine that such a situation does not necessarily contribute to the well-being of all individuals involved: Person A and person B, the primary couple, would like to spend couple time with each other, undisturbed; however, they are at least subconsciously distracted by the unresolved situation with another person anxiously waiting for them to finish. Meanwhile, person C, the secondary relationship, who would also like to talk, enjoy sex or share affectionate attention with person B, has to think about the needs and wishes of the primary partner, person A, before they can get their own needs met.

These issues are likely to be the source of several typical conflicts within a polycule:

  • Between person A and person B, the primary relationship:
    Person B wants to spend more time with person C, their secondary, than person A finds acceptable.
  • Between person B and person C, the secondary relationship:
    If person C has needs, the fulfilment of which would overstep agreements between the individuals of the primary couple, and thus would call for an overhaul of the whole hierarchical structure in place.
  • And, at the worst, between the metamours person A and person C:
    Person A, the primary relationship, and person C, the secondary relationship, easily end up in sub- or half-conscious power games, by using resources from person B, their mutual partner, as emotional blackmail against each other. This often includes the gaining or withdrawal of couple time, or (alleged) comments by person B. In most cases, person B lets the ongoing power game run its course, or even plays an active part, as long as they get an advantage out of it.

The potential for such conflicts accumulates over time and discharges upon occasion in heated arguments, fights or actions which widely overstep the boundaries of at least one member of the polycule. If the individuals involved “feel committed to the idea of being poly”, they will, after a bundle of these clashes have occurred, try to deal with them by so-called processing. This means that all individuals involved sit together, and everyone addresses their needs and wishes to every other individual. The aim is to settle misunderstandings, find new behaviour strategies and amend agreements, in order to arrive at a satisfying solution for all individuals involved.

The communication method of processing is, in principle, very useful and healthy, and has found its way into the poly ideology probably by accident. If correctly applied (!), it is a recommendable conflict solving strategy for romantic relationships of any kind, with two or more members. It revolves, however, around one important philosophy: Every individual must aim for the best solution for all individuals involved (and not for their personal advantage at any cost!). In other words, if one person tries to “win”, the method does not work because all participants (including the one who started it) “lose” – they are depleted of emotional resources, trust, and intimacy.

Unfortunately, many people are not able to distinguish between solution-oriented communication and subconscious or deliberate power games of certain individuals or groups, because they have never learned to spot the differences. As a consequence, most people in the poly community are not able to use processing as intended, just like most people in the heteronormative mainstream.

Instead, this handicap results in “processing in circles”: Since the individuals involved hardly ever think and communicate in a solution-oriented manner, in the end, they agree only on minor changes, but are not able to recognise or acknowledge the source of the conflict(s) at hand. In other words, they cut diseased leaves from the plant, but do not remove the diseased part of its root. This incomplete procedure will sooner or later give rise to similar conflicts which, again, spur arguments, fights or transgressing actions.

This creates a situation which drains energy from every individual involved, much more than it contributes. A conflict constantly hovering over the polycule, as well as more and more arguments and processing rounds that don’t seem to fix issues (or at least get easier over time) exhaust the resources of all individuals involved – which is a distinguishing feature of an unstable intermediate condition on the Intimacy Scale.

Through my personal history with my polyamorous triad, I was able to gain further insights:

When I met Maitri and Nemo, I was not single as I had been in a (poorly defined) secondary relationship with a boyfriend for a few months.

Our romantic connection had started as a typical relationship, but went sour a few weeks in, due to persisting conflicts rooted in his unfair behaviour. For example, while he had agreed to an open relationship and greatly enjoyed going on dates and having sex with other women (with the only restriction of telling me soon after), he made a scene every time I showed interest in another man. This is a common power game in the poly community called OPP (One Penis Policy). Being familiar with the game from the mainstream, I pursued my sexual interests every time, but initiated multiple talks to find a good compromise between my boundaries and his- to which he agreed, only to continue as before. After three months, I had had enough, sat down with him and made him secondary, thereby explicitly stating (for him and in the community) that he wouldn’t have a say in my future sexual or romantic interests.

Then I got together with Maitri and with Nemo. In the beginning, we still believed in the idea of a secondary relationship (as something closer than friendship but less close than a committed romantic relationship). However, I did not feel comfortable going back to my apartment to sleep alone while Maitri and Nemo were living in a shared household, slept in the same bed, and had access to immediate couple time. Likewise, none of us wanted to exclude the other or throw them out of bed while they wanted to share affectionate attention, enjoy sex, or cuddle with their romantic partner(s) – which would have been a logical conclusion of me being secondary in one form or another.

After two months, Maitri, Nemo and I revisited the topic, and explicitly threw the idea of a secondary relationship overboard. Then, we officially agreed on equal rights and identical agreements for all individuals involved. At this point, I acknowledged the unethical consequences of a secondary relationship in all directions, and finally broke up with my own secondary.

In hindsight, I am glad that I had this energy-draining connection in my polycule, since, with a nice boyfriend at my side, I would not have been so starkly confronted with the necessity to uncover the negative dynamics inherent to any secondary relationship. After three months, I moved in with Maitri and Nemo, and we agreed not to engage in any new romantic entanglements (i.e. to be romantically closed), making us the polyamorous triad we are today.

From these observations and my own experiences I conclude that engaging in a secondary relationship, and therefore hierarchical polyamory as such – regardless if solo-poly or in a network of primary and secondary relationships – does not constitute an ethical and healthy model of romantic relationships.

Heart farts – part 3/6: New relationship energy or: The energy equilibrium between couples in a polycule

If individuals are connected at the romantic level, an energy exchange takes place between all persons involved. This also happens between connected individuals at lower levels of the intimacy scale, but to a much lesser extent.

If a participating individual exhibits energy-draining behaviour and/or if the existing couple generates an energy-draining condition, this leads to an effect which does simply not occur in any romantic relationship which consists of two individuals. That’s why only few people think about these effects when dealing with polyamory.

A condition which is energy-draining over a longer period of time corresponds to an unstable intermediate level on the intimacy scale.

If a couple predominantly drains energy, this can occur due to the following setup:

  1. They are still in the phase of fighting out their relationship in order to reach stability
  2. They have an underlying unresolved conflict over their mutual interests, activities or desires.
  3. One of the individuals involved is missing something fundamental: The desire for sex and/or affectionate behaviour is not met or satisfied (enough).
  4. The persons involved believe in values from the poly ideology and define themselves as “secondary partners” which are allowed less co-determination in life decisions than “primary partners”.
  5. The relationship is built upon a secondarily motivated crush: Actually, the persons involved would have only desired casual sex with one another.

In my personal experience, I had a straight secondary relationship attempt for a few months. It was based on the points 2, 3, 4 and 5 in personnel union – that’s why a lot of my energy went down the drain with him.

Within a couple, the total number of all persons involved is the same as the number of persons who make up the couple: Generally, it’s always about two individuals. If the couple is unstable, thus only two people are directly concerned – and maybe also their children, if they have any.

This situation, however, is very different from the one in polycules:

A polycule consists of at least two couples by definition; the minimum is three persons involved. If one couple is unstable, the other couple(s) and metamour connections are also negatively affected by energy exchange, even if these couple(s) were perfectly stable on their own.

This energy exchange – similar to osmosis in chemistry – will take place at all points where two or more people are connected. In the graphics presented for the poly scheduling problem that is in all corner points, where two or more lines meet.

If an energy-draining (= unstable) structure meets an energy-generating (= stable) structure, a (mostly subconscious) dynamic is set into motion: I call this the principle of shifted boundaries.

Examples:

Two individuals live in a romantic relationship which is unstable due to an energy-draining dynamic. Since something seems to be missing, they open their relationship emotionally, in order to find “it” with another person. Thus, their decision is not based on a primary motivation for polyamory (for that, the existing couple would have to be stable), but on a secondary motivation.

Supposedly, this emotionally open couple becomes acquainted with a suitable third individual. As a consequence, a person of the pre-existing couple falls in love with this new person. These two decide to enter a connection at the romantic level. Thus, the pre-existing couple is suddenly a part of a polycule.

The new couple can generate energy in two ways:

  1. Since both individuals are in love, freshly-generated energy comes along with their feelings. As long as these feelings are active, they predominantly provide energy. This is (ideally) meant to fuel the necessary relationship work at their conflicts in the beginning of the romantic relationship until both persons involved achieve a stable romantic level.
  2. The couple has arguments and agrees on solutions for the existing conflicts. Thus, they achieve a stable romantic level. As long as this level stays stable, it predominantly provides energy.

Now, there is the pre-existing couple (EV = energy vampire) and the new couple who generates energy (ES = energy source). They form a V polycule which looks like this:

In accordance with the principle of communicating vessels, the energy flows from the energy-generating to the energy-draining couple. That starts the principle of shifted boundaries:

From the view of person B, who is both a part of ES and of EV, the behaviour of person A which accelerates the energy drain of EV – e.g. actions, which are annoying, disrespectful or ignorant towards person B’s boundaries – suddenly do not seem so bad any more. That’s because person B has now access to more energy than his/her own – there is the energy of ES, which is used to balance the energy minus in EV.

Consciously, this manifests by lowered annoyance, exhaustion or destructive conflicts (also implicit ones!) within EV and previously unwanted behaviour is reinterpreted to “that’s ok” or “just a peculiarity of person A”. The EV-relationship between persons A and B seems to suddenly work better subjectively, although all energy-draining dynamics keep running underneath.

The other couple, however, does not remain uninfluenced by the principle of shifted boundaries, since the energy of ES is tapped. In the beginning, this can go by unnoticed, since more energy is generated than lost. If, however, the loss becomes greater over time, the previously energy-generating couple starts to drain energy as well since even their maintaining energy is drained by EV. This leads to destructive (and unnecessary) conflicts between persons B and C within ES. Usually, person B projects conflicts with person A onto person C. The result is annoyance and exhaustion between persons B and C.

The only way to break this vicious cycle is to find the causes for the energy vampirism within EV and to look at these as if EV would be a standalone couple without another connected couple:

  • Is the wish for a polyamorous lifestyle based on a secondary motivation?
  • Does one or several of the reasons for an unstable romantic relationship listed above apply to you?
  • Is there other behaviour of your romantic partner, which is energy-draining?
  • How can we change this step by step, mutually, so that we achieve a stable romantic relationship?
  • Could couple coaching, couple therapy or individual psychotherapy be helpful to us in our situation?

If, however, no constructive communication about any of these topics is possible (any more), or a romantic relationship has not been the most suitable social connection from the beginning, a separation remains as the only solution.

The poly ideology contains its own philosophy for such cases – it might not be very surprising that it is dysfunctional, again: The concept about new relationship energy, abbreviated to NRE.

New relationship energy describes exactly the effect that an energy-draining romantic relationship experiences an apparent “improvement” by the energy of an additional new romantic relationship. According to this philosophy, all persons involved would feel “compersion” in such a situation: All are happy about one another and about the beautiful energy. If there were no breaks of consent involved (“I tell you who I have started an additional romantic relationship with, but I don’t care whether you have consented to that!”), this can actually be the case – but only for a few days or weeks. Then the equilibrium loses its balance, and also the ES relationship starts to drain energy like the EV relationship. At this point, a new ES relationship must be found of course, which provides NRE for the next round, etc.

The respective ES relationship is always tapped: Instead of letting the energy flow to the respective couple which has actually generated it (where it belongs!), it goes into energy-draining structures and disappears therein, like in a black hole. If this dynamic is not removed, the entire relationship network will tumble towards an emotional mushroom cloud and blow up in a fiery finale.