These writings have all started from the premise that the core escalator script about love is a social construct, and there are other ways to love.
My own journey started with a rejection of that core script – the standard idea of ‘one true love’ – and an embracing instead of the idea of abundant love, with all parties free to form loving relationships in any way that is consensual and appropriate for the individuals involved: including friendship, romance, sex, family, and other frameworks and descriptions for our connections. I deliberately and consciously stopped following the script that told me that a successful romantic relationship was the key to my happiness, and that the success of this relationship would be demonstrated by making a commitment to living together happily ever after.
That core script is fairly easy to question. At the end of my past, long term, monogamous relationships I’d remained in loving friendships with those individuals long after we’d decided we weren’t each other’s ‘the one’. I didn’t (and still don’t) want to write off those relationships as ‘failures’ because we didn’t live together happily ever after. I have two wonderful children, and a myriad of other gifts from the years I was romantically involved with those partners – memories, life lessons, shared histories, family ties, friendship. I had already worked out there might be more than one ‘the one’ before I began to explore consensual non-monogamy.
Beyond that central “the one” script, a whole lot of other scripts and frameworks exist – expectations and assumptions about what particular relationships can and can’t be, what functions they serve, how important they are or aren’t, whether they’re a success or not. In embracing consensual non-monogamy I’ve had to unlearn a whole bunch of other stories I’d absorbed into my psyche about what I should and shouldn’t expect and assume about my partners and my romantic relationships.
I asked some polyamorous friends what assumptions they’d run into that needed to be questioned and unpacked – here are a few examples they gave me:
- That friendships are less important than romantic relationship
- That you should share a room, and/or a bed, with your romantic partner/s
- That sexual relationships are romantic (and vice versa)
- That if you don’t feel jealous of your partner’s other relationships, it’s because you don’t REALLY love them
- That having sex means you can’t be friends any more
- That saying “I love you” is a significant relationship milestone that means much more than an expression of feelings
- That you should spend holidays together (instead of deciding who to spend Christmas holidays, birthdays or other big events with)
A monogamous colleague I chatted with was incredulous that I could continue in more than one significant romantic relationship once one of my partners moved in with me. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t describing anyone as a ‘primary’ partner, or main relationship. It is possible to live without hierarchy when you entangle things like living together, co-parenting, shared finances, and shared household responsibilities with another adult with whom you’re in a romantic relationship – but it’s not easy. Not least, because almost everyone outside of your situation will assume that they’re ‘the one’, no matter how much you emphasise that one or both of you have other equally significant romantic relationships with other people who don’t (or do) live in your home.
Some polyamorous people consciously prescribe a hierarchy, making agreements or rules that rank one relationship above others, and limit the possible shapes that other secondary/tertiary relationships can evolve into. That probably wouldn’t work for me, as I prefer to approach my loving relationship with total freedom and openness to all possibilities – but it can work if everyone involved knows the score.
Priority is not hierarchy, of course, and sometimes people that are living together (sometimes described as a ‘nesting’ relationship) will pragmatically prioritise that domestic entanglement, even if their emotional connections are without such priorities – so despite wanting a lack of hierarchy, certain descriptive hierarchies may evolve. Others will live with a romantic partner but keep their lives intentionally unentangled – why should sharing a house with a romantic partner necessarily and automatically involve shared finances, holidays, child-rearing, meals, beds, rooms or anything else?
A couple of years ago, a few months in to my relationship with my long distance partner, I suggested that our relationship would inevitably plateau, because distance would mean we couldn’t ‘escalate’ any further. Yet that relationship has continued to grow and develop, and is a core part of my everyday life despite the ongoing physical distance between our houses, and the limitations that puts on our ability to spend time together.
When a relationship appears to have escalated along the lines of the core script, people might assume that anything off that escalator path is ‘de-escalation’ and a de-prioritising or failing of a relationship – for example if partners decide to stop living together. It might be because the relationship is less of a priority or is coming to an end. Or it might be that the people in that relationship recognise their needs or wants have changed, and their relationship needs space to flourish, endure, or even deepen a shared, authentic feeling of commitment.
Love is wonderful, but it’s not all you need for a relationship to work. Assuming is dangerous when you’re off the script, because you can end up on very different pages. Layers of assumptions built on standard social scripts for relationships are insidious – they can go unnoticed until you find that your expectations and your partner’s expectations are, in truth, very mismatched. Whether it’s a new relationship or a long-established one, if you’re not following the standard script it’s important to check in and explore your shifting preferences, wants, needs and hopes. Then together you can work out what you will work for you and your relationship now.
Letting go of your assumptions, being honest, being your true self and recognising your partner for who they are, you might discover your needs from a relationship don’t align, or you might find a new way forward that works for you. If you love unconditionally, then you love and accept your person as they are in the now – and that is a relationship that cannot ‘fail’, because if it ends it ends with love, and if it continues it will change as you each grow.
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