Air & The Ideal
The element of air is usually the first element that we call upon in Pagan ritual, because so many cultures mark the beginning of human life as the first breath of air into an infant's body. It is the element of mind, of ideas, of words and communication, and of stories. Relationships, too, go through the elemental round, and they start with air. Starhawk has characterized this early phase of a relationship as "the Telling of the Tales," where new partners reveal themselves through telling the stories of their lives, their interests, their worldviews, in order to compare and contrast and determine their compatibility.
In polyamory, the ideal often comes first, before the practice or the word. Perhaps someone hears about it and thinks, "Wow, that would certainly be more fun than how I'm doing it now!" They might also come to it on their own, imagining to themselves, "It would be great if I didn't have to be monogamous, but I don't want to cheat. How can I make this work, ethically? What would have to be going on in order to make it work?" By the time they stumble upon other poly people, they may already have their own system in place.
YuleCat in Massachusetts describes a fairly common process in coming to polyamory. "I was monogamous in my first serious relationship. I loved her, but I still felt the urge to see what else was out there, even though I was completely happy with her and our relationship. This led to me cheating on her a number of times. I lied about it, got away with it, and would have continued to get away with it in the future, but then I met a girl who actually mattered to me. We started forming an actual relationship while I was still involved with my previous girlfriend. It's easy to hide a one-night-stand, but not a second lover. I couldn't live with the guilt anymore, so I told her and, not surprisingly, it ended. Ironically, the other girl left me soon afterward. I guess that's karma for you. I spent the next six months sleeping around at Pagan gatherings, sowing my wild oats, and then one of my flings told me about polyamory . . . Initially, I saw this as a way to have a serious relationship and not get yelled at for having fun on the side as well, but over time the form and depth of our poly relationships became much more than that."
Most of the Pagans that I interviewed, however, came to polyamory by watching other people do it, often at a festival, convention, or other public Pagan event. Most of this group came to it through Pagan sources (although a few stumbled upon it at science fiction conventions) and thus absorbed it from a Pagan viewpoint, although what that meant to them was somewhat vague. Most of them also did their hunting for potential partners in a Pagan or semi-Pagan venue.
Some of the polyfolks that I interviewed were living with non-Pagan spouses and dealing with interfaith issues (which we'll deal with further in Part V). Others, like Ash in Massachusetts, vehemently prefer to restrict themselves to Pagans: "Someone once said that dating outside of your religion is like dating outside of your species. I tend to agree with them. I find that an underlying spiritual connection based on a mutual worldview is essential to my relationships." Judie in Wisconsin says, "Our poly family is made up entirely of goddess-worshipping women, and the spiritual component of our family is so important that I don't think we could welcome someone into our family if they didn't connect with that energy. I can't imagine I'd want someone who couldn't take part in our family rituals with a whole heart. It would leave them out of too many things that are bonding for us."
On the other hand, some cared more about their lovers' poly-amorous status than their religion. Ruth in Massachusetts blithely recounts, "Some of my partners are or have been Pagan. Some were Jewish, some Christian, some laying claim to no faith. Two were Thelemites, two were LaVeyan-style Satanists, and there was one Buddhist in there, one Hindu, and one practitioner of Voudoun."
Issues of labeling often plague beginning polyfolks. Labels can be words of power in a very real magical sense; how we define our loved ones and their place in our lives is hard to sum up, and sometimes it's hard to find the perfect one-word label that carries all the right connotations and none of the wrong ones. Some complain that every common label comes with some sort of unpleasant baggage. "Lover" sometimes feels too intimate for use among strangers. "Partner" can imply business as well as romantic partners and may have connotations of a live-in, shared-bank-account-and-mortgage kind of relationship. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" can have connotations of ephemerality, and if you have two partners who are equal in their status in your life, and one's labeled husband/wife and the other boyfriend/girlfriend, it's easy for others to assume that the marriage is the "real," lasting relationship and the other one's just a temporary fling. On the other hand, "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" do seem to be the labels of choice for secondary partners, not so much for the connotation of ephemerality so much as the secondary priority of the relationship. If you are friendly with the families of poly lovers you aren't married to, or who aren't your primary partner, labels for them can be difficult as well. One woman refers to her boyfriend's family as her "out-laws," as opposed to her husband's "in-laws."
Some polyamorous people create their own labels and system, perhaps using personal symbolism or magical affinities. Moira Wolf in Arizona says, "I refer to Nite as my co-mate. We view ourselves as a 'pack' since we are all wolf spirits. Storm and I are the 'alpha pair'-we've been together the longest, we own a home, a business, and many investments. Nite is beta male, and he doesn't aspire to be alpha. He's just happy belonging."
One of the most common sets of polyamory terms is primary-secondary-tertiary, as in "This is Autumn, my primary partner, and this is Jean, my secondary." The titles are not assigned on the basis of how much you love someone or how worthy they are as a human; they're about which relationship takes priority. Often, the primary partners are legally married or at the very least their relationship has seniority. Sometimes they own a home together, or share a joint bank account, or are otherwise financially entangled. A few even label regular but entirely casual lovers as tertiaries.
Other polyfolks would rather not have a hierarchy among their lovers and abjure the primary/secondary system. Some use it guardedly; Ruth comments that "I hate the primary-secondary terms, but like many people who don't like it but have no other words, I sometimes use them." It has its positive sides and its pitfalls, which are discussed in the Saturn chapter on boundaries.
One interesting thing was the folks who don't limit their "poly families" only to people with whom they are having sex. Brenna in Wisconsin points out that "one of the great things about defining your family as poly is that you can more easily include loving friends. To me, polyamory means 'many loves' . . . and that's about people that I love, not just people that I'm currently screwing. My poly family includes my ex-lover with whom I am no longer sexual, but with whom I am still very close friends."
Galadriel in Philadelphia writes of her "steadiest relationship, which is quite platonic. My best friend and I have a very intimate spiritual friendship but no sexual relationship, as he's a gay man and I'm predominantly interested in women. He understands me on a level no one else does, and I believe we have known each other in past lifetimes as well as this one. He's the closest in my life to what I'd call Anam Cara, unconditional love." Ruth in Massachusetts tells of "a girlfriend that I have been with on and off for seven years. I don't know if other people would count her because we haven't had any sex in years, but I count her and she counts me."
Others were less comfortable about the idea of seeing nonsexual relationships in the same category as lovers. "There's a new theoretical trend among some people, especially women, to lump anyone with whom they have some sexual tension into the pile labeled 'lovers,'" says Judie from Wisconsin, a lesbian in a polyfidelitous foursome. "These folks tend to say, 'Lover isn't about sex, it's about who I love.' While that sounds romantic and all, I think it isn't healthy. It can make for some squishy boundaries that are easy to violate, and misunderstandings can crop up."
Joshua in Massachusetts exclaims, "Ick! That's appalling. If I'm not physically intimate with someone, they are not my lover, and if they were to call me their lover just because they feel sexually attracted to me, or emotionally attached to me, I'd be terribly uncomfortable. It would feel like they were stalking me, pressuring me to make that relationship more than it is. It means that they would be defining what we were without my input and consent, and that's creepy."
Poly relationships can take many forms, and it's not uncommon to want to draw them out in a diagram. This is jokingly called "polygeometry" among polyfolk, and certain jargon labels have sprung up to express those alternative shapes. In the magical numerology of shapes, the dyad, or two points between a line, is the symbol of partnership, the heart of I-Thou. Certainly every polygeometry shape is made up of lines, just as every poly relationship is made up of a series of one-on-one partnerships, but what happens to the magical symbolism when you add more people?
The next step up from two is three, and the most common poly shapes have three points. Three is the number of magic, of Mercury, of the mind; it is both less stable than two-it's harder to change anything in a dyad, whereas a third party is always throwing the dyadic stasis off balance-and more stable, as it's the minimum number of points needed to make something stand firmly. This combination of stability and instability seems to be par for the course for the quicksilver, elusive number three . . . and for three-way relationships. They can be the extra leg that the couple needs to do more than they had ever dreamed, or they can be the catalyst that prods them into conflict . . . or both.
The most common configuration of polyamorous partners is a V, with one central person maintaining two sexual/romantic relationships with two people who are not sexually intimate with each other. The reason for its commonality seems to be that it's how people start taking baby steps into polyamory. Generally, one person decides that they'd like to try it, and their primary lover cautiously agrees, and they go out and find another lover . . . or they may have already fallen in love with someone and see polyamory as their only chance of having both partners at once. Because it's the most common "beginning" poly relationship, it's also the one with the most break-ups, usually either because the original partner underestimated how they would feel about seeing their partner with another lover, or because the person at the point of the V underestimated how difficult it would be to mediate between their two lovers.
It is a place of pressure, make no mistake. Being at the point of a V is the hardest role in polyamory, because it means that you have two people's full-time attention and needs focused on you. It means that you may be expected to mediate between them, and perhaps less focus is placed on their ability to communicate, because of course you're there, and you've learned to speak both their languages, and since they're both there for you, why should they bother to have much of a relationship with each other? How healthy this is will vary depending on many factors: how much time is spent with each of them, whether there is a clear primary and secondary, whether you move in the same social circles, whether you live far apart or near each other or even all together. If one partner is your full-time live-in primary and the other is an occasional lover that you see once in a while in a different state, then the need for the two of them to communicate regularly on their own or have a strong independent relationship may not be relevant. On the other hand, if you are all trying to live together, and/or if you are juggling two primary partners, their ability to communicate other than through you may be crucial to keeping things clear and aboveboard.
I think of a V relationship as a glyph of a human being raising their arms to the sky. Each outstretched hand holds the life of one lover, one person who is special to them. When you stand like that, with your arms toward the sky, the point that is central to your two arms is your heart, and this too is symbolic. If you are the focal point of a V relationship, your heart is what is binding them together. If lightning strikes one or both of your hands, it will run through your heart. Similarly, any conflict between your lovers will rip through your heart, and this is the price that you will pay for being the center point.