Monday, November 26, 2018

Bad versus Good Polyamorous Romances

I am the product of polygamy (my grandmother was the youngest child of a second wife). Consequently, I have a soft spot for polyamorous stories. I sympathize with readers who never read such romances (M/M or M/F) but if they are well-written...

Here's the problem. Polyamorous stories are intensely difficult to pull off (and absolutely no double entendre was intended there).

Now, polyamorous relationships are somewhat different from polygynous (man with multiple wives) or polyandrous (woman with multiple husbands) relationships since polyamorous relationships can be any combination thereof. But the same problems haunt them all: competition, jealousy between members, lack of commitment, lust being perceived as inherent permission to stray, etc. All these weaknesses are compounded by a polyamorous relationship's numbers.

Jaime Samms's Three Player Game is one of the best romances of this type. I'm been pondering for awhile why it works--when quite honestly the concept is such a hard sell. I then read a polyamorous novella that was frankly so horrible, I've had to stop reading the author's entire oeuvre. At least for awhile. (Lack of trust between reader and writer is an uncomfortable thing.)

What's the difference? What makes a good polyamorous (literary) romance work?

1. The involved characters are all wired for a multi-person relationship.

The relationship isn't a surprise, especially not for the reader.

The horrible book was a sequel to a previous book. In the previous book, the author gave no indication at all that the characters were interested in a polyamorous relationship. The one character was a rather innocent young man who craved a family. The other character was a rather promiscuous man who decided to settle down when he met the "one." In the sequel, the innocent young man is shocked--shocked!--to discover his polyamorous bent.

Eh, no. Some things can shock a person. Wiring of this type, however, is not the sort of thing that creeps up on one. It is there already. In Jaime Samms's Three Player Game, the two characters already in a relationship are prepared to expand their home-life to a third person. They acknowledge their desires. They discuss them. They are the furthest thing from shocked and surprised.

2. Wanting a multi-person relationship is not the same as wanting to sleep around. Nor is it the same as a three-some or an open relationship.

The terms appear interchangeable to those who are fully committed to monogamy. Understandably since the lame excuse "hey, babe, commitment isn't part of our evolutionary makeup, ya know" is too often a fall-back position for those who want to do, well, whatever they want (whatever the cost).

At this point, it becomes necessary to deal with the stereotype that all men just want to sleep around.

Interestingly enough in yaoi, the "sub"
often has more freedom to play the field
than the "dom."
Promiscuity may be part of the evolutionary package. So is a yearning for stability. Going all the way back to forever, people in art and literature have yearned to be desired. And to get their jollies wherever they want. And to have that one and only. It's as much a male desire as a female one, even if it is often packaged differently.

And with very few exceptions, all art and literature since forever has determined that cheating/lying/deceitfulness in love is less than okay (and often downright dangerous).

Consequently, the need for clear understanding/agreement reigns supreme. A relationship that engages in three-somes (Dom and Silas from KJ Charles's Seditious Affair, for example) is exercising sexual desires as part of the two-person relationship yet outside of it. The couple engage in the behavior together, then return to their regular two-person lives. In an open relationship, the couple go their own ways, returning to "home base" at the end of the proverbial day.

In a polyamorous relationship, other partners are incorporated into the existing home relationship.

In sum, a successful relationship has rules.

The horrible book tosses around the above terms not only as if they are interchangeable but as if one kink in one direction allows for all behavior in all directions. Except human beings are far more individually wired than that. Dom and Silas would likely not be okay with a polyamorous relationship, in large part due to their mutually reserved personalities.

In the horrible book, the so-called open-minded boyfriend (or pimp) is actually pissed when his boyfriend finds the whole idea of polyamory kind of awkward: "It's just other people's opinions! You shouldn't feel that way! You make up the rules!"

In Samms's book, on the other hand, the idea of a multi-person relationship is not mentioned (for the first time) as part of a bedroom pep talk. It is not the result of pressure and second-guessing. The couple have already discussed, quite matter-of-factly, whether to include someone in their relationship. They have already laid out ground rules regarding approach and acceptance.

3.  The successful polyamorous relationship is not about wishful thinking. It is about commitment.

The horrible book paints the potential relationship precisely as wishful thinking. Oh, I met someone, thought he was hot, and by the way, I really, really like him. Wouldn't it be great if . . .?

And that's a good enough reason to start a relationship because . . . we're all fourteen-year-olds passing notes in study hall?

In Samms's book, the selection of the right individual is perceived as a long-term process. It won't happen overnight. And it may not happen with this guy (no matter how attractive). They aren't inviting him into their home to screw with him (literally and figuratively) because they were bored one day. Like any good polygamous family, they are scouting potential additions.

4. Successful polyamorous relationships are not about re-enacting the grand experience of falling in love over and over again.

That might sound odd since love and affection often accompany commitment.

However, in the horrible book, the one character decides (like a teenage idiot), "I want to sleep with him. AND I like him. Oh, it must be love. Therefore, I must be polyamorous!"


Feeling affection for multiple people does not translate automatically into intimacy. Or long-term love and commitment. Or not. People can love their friends. Their pets. Movie stars on the big screen. They can love people who are not their partners.

People don't act on every feeling of love or affection or desire or closeness nor do they act--when they do act--on those feelings the same way with everyone. People's emotions don't fit tidily into acceptable boxes. And their emotions don't stay there either.

In other words, being in a committed relationship doesn't mean I-never-look-at-anyone-or-think-anything-that-bleeds-into-the-love-spectrum-ever-ever-ever-again.

It means I-stay-in-this-particular-relationship-based-on-consent-and-agreement-to-terms (believe it or not, this is a very old definition of what constitutes a healthy, committed relationship).

Consent and honesty is why so many of us admire Booth for staying loyal to his girlfriend, even though his girlfriend at the time wasn't Bones and Bones had just confessed her love to Booth.

If Booth thought like the horrible book's characters, he would have dropped the girlfriend in an instant or suggested a three-way--because after all, he has powerful feelings of friendship and affection for Bones. Voila! A relationship must ensue!

Except Booth is a conservative guy (like Tim Allen's Mike Baxter and Tom Selleck's Frank Reagan), and he doesn't. He knows what his limits are. And we like him better for it.

I give the marriages in the horrible book a three-second shelf-life. As soon as another damaged hottie enters the mix, off they will all go . . .

Jaime Samms's characters, on the other hand, I can see living together well into old age. Support. Comfort. Complementary personalities. Meeting of needs. Their commitment isn't based on momentary lust (even if lust is present) or adolescent cluelessness about the nature of human affection--"Oh my gosh, I must love this person because I have all these warm & fuzzy feelings!"--or coercion about "free-thinking".

Rather, their commitment is based on honesty, knowing the rules, knowing each member's character, valuing balance, and wanting the relationship because it is the type of relationship they have always wanted and valued. 

Consider grown-up Sherlock's comment to grown-up Joan:
Your romantic inclinations are not a flaw to be corrected. They're a trait to be accepted. I know you, Watson. You'll never be happy within the confines of a, quote, unquote, "traditional relationship." And I said what I said because it pains me to see you try to fit into one simply because it is the default mode of polite society. Would you be happier without Andrew? Alternatively, with him as an occasional sex partner and confidant? With him when in the States and free to pursue other interests when not? There are any number of possible arrangements. All you need to do is find one which is true to your nature.
He is NOT saying, "Oh, well, this time, you really like the guy, so, you know, whatever. Next time, whatever."

He is saying, "Figure out your wiring. Stop acting like it's other people's fault. Be upfront in your relationships. Take responsibility. Be rational and choose." 

That's how grown-ups talk.