What is Commitment Without Entanglement?

I’ve been thinking about commitment a lot recently. What it is, what it means, and how I can ethically incorporate it into my life in a way that aligns with my needs, my values, and my partners’ needs and values.

As a polyamorous person and an ethical slut, commitment matters a lot to me. Does that surprise you? Many people assume that true commitment is impossible in a non-monogamous context. Of course, I don’t agree.

What is commitment, anyway?

Oxford Languages suggests the definition of commitment as “the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc”. I think this is actually a pretty okay definition.

We all think we know what commitment means in a relationship, especially as it relates to mononormative culture. People often equate commitment with things like getting married, living together, and raising children together. Our society also strongly equates commitment with exclusivity. (Hands up every polyamorous person who has been asked “when are you going to commit to one person?”)

As a non-monogamous person, I suggest we look at commitment a different way. Instead of asking “what does society tell me a committed relationship looks like?”, ask yourself “what does commitment mean to me?”

Here are five things commitment means to me.

  • Commitment means I will prioritise you highly. This does not necessarily mean I will always put you first, and I will not necessarily prioritise you to the detriment of other important things in my life. But I will always consider you and strive to behave in ways that honour our connection.
  • Commitment means I will attempt to work through problems that arise in our relationship, engaging in good faith and seeking solutions that work for everyone involved.
  • Commitment means that I honour the ways in which you, I, and our relationship will grow and change. I want to grow along with you, not away from you.
  • Commitment means I want you to be in my life for as long as it is a happy and healthy choice for both of us. Ideally that means “for life,” but I accept things change. If our relationship is no longer good for one or both of us, I will let you go.
  • Commitment means that your happiness matters to me. To the best of my ability, and to the extent it doesn’t harm me or anyone else to do so, I will behave in ways that faciliate your happiness.

Your answers may be different. But I encourage you to think about what commitment is to you and maybe write down a “commitment manifesto” like the one I’ve shared above.

What is entanglement?

When I talk about entanglement in a relationship, I’m broadly referring to what is often known within polyamorous communities as “the relationship escalator.” Coined by writer Amy Gahran, the relationship escalator is described thus:

The default set of societal expectations for intimate relationships. Partners follow a progressive set of steps, each with visible markers, toward a clear goal.

The goal at the top of the Escalator is to achieve a permanently monogamous (sexually and romantically exclusive between two people), cohabitating marriage — legally sanctioned if possible. In many cases, buying a house and having kids is also part of the goal. Partners are expected to remain together at the top of the Escalator until death.

The Escalator is the standard by which most people gauge whether a developing intimate relationship is significant, “serious,” good, healthy, committed or worth pursuing or continuing.” (Source.)

The relationship escalator isn’t inherently bad, if it’s something you genuinely want (as opposed to something you’re following because of social, cultural, or familial pressure). But holding up the escalator model as the pinnacle of relationship achievement is deeply damaging to many people.

On or off the escalator?

Even though I strongly identify as non-monogamous, I’ve always valued having a core, deeply entangled relationship in my life. This is what Mr CK and I have. We live together, we share bills and cats and household chores, we are at least somewhat financially entangled. We’re each other’s next of kin at the hospital. We make big decisions together, and we hope to be together for life.

I also do not want all my relationships – or indeed any others – to be this entangled. The beauty of non-monogamy is that relationships don’t have to be all or nothing. If you have great sex but don’t have romantic feelings for one another, you can have a great friends-with-benefits arrangement. If you love each other but don’t want to live together, you can enjoy the connection for what it is without pushing for it to be more. When you have a need one partner can’t or won’t meet, you can get it fulfilled elsewhere.

This means you get to choose whether each relationship is on or off the escalator. It means you get to choose what level of commitment you want, and what that means for you and your partner(s).

You can even decide to take certain steps on the escalator but skip others, if you want to. For example, “we want to live together but no kids,” or “we want to get married, but monogamy isn’t part of our arrangement.”

Commitment without entanglement

When you try to define commitment without the trappings of heteronormative, mononormative, escalator-driven relationships, it gets complicated fast. It also gets really, really diverse.

Here are five things I’ve learned about how to do commitment without entanglement.

Create milestones that matter to you

Every serious relationship has meaningful milestones. What these look like and what they mean to you both/all will be different in each relationship. A few common milestones that don’t necessarily imply entanglement include the first kiss, the first time you say “I love you,” the first time you have sex, and the first night you spend together.

Unromantic milestones matter, too. In my relationship with The Artist, I remember feeling like our relationship had turned a corner the first time we navigated a (non-relational) crisis together. It wasn’t fun at the time, but in the long run it cemented our bond even further. I felt similarly after the first time they saw me in the middle of a major mental health crisis and didn’t run away.

What relationship milestones feel significant to you and your partner(s)? Think about both things you’ve already done (“the first overnight we spent together felt really significant to me”) and things you’d like to do someday (“I really want to introduce you to my best friends.”)

Have each other’s backs

For me, one of the biggest signs of commitment is when someone is by my side through difficult times. I enjoy the sex-with-no-expectations brand of relationship with some people. But I want to know that my inner circle people are there for me.

If you’re around when you want a hot shag but then disappear when I’m sobbing on the sofa because my depression is so bad, I won’t see the relationship as a committed one and will adjust my expectations accordingly.

Having each other’s backs isn’t the same as expecting the other person to drop everything to care for you in every crisis. But it does mean stepping up when you can, being there for the bad times as well as the good, and going out of your way for the other person at least some of the time.

Ask, don’t assume

When was the last time you asked your partner what love and commitment means to them? It’s easy to assume other people define these things in the same ways that we do. But assumptions are the fast-track to hurt feelings and miscommunications.

If you’re not sure what your partner needs or wants, ask them! If you’re not sure how they’re feeling, don’t try to guess. Just talk about it.

Learning each other’s love languages can be useful here. People often make the mistake of assuming that everyone gives and receives love the way they do. The love language framework isn’t perfect. But it gives you a way to explore and communicate your needs to your partner and to understand theirs.

Asking isn’t unromantic! Asking someone what they need or want is actually a huge sign of love and respect. Mononormative culture holds that we should be able to read our partner’s mind. This is bullshit. Don’t try. Seriously, I cannot emphasise this enough – just fucking ask.

Stand up for the relationship

When I was with my ex, one of the things that stopped me ever feeling safe was the fact that his wife had veto power. Even after years together, she could have told him to dump me at any time and he would have complied. Even though it was only ever hypothetical, we talked about the possibility at length. One of the things that really hurt was the knowledge that, if push came to shove, he would not stand up for our relationship.

I won’t date anyone with a veto arrangement any more. I believe that longer-term and more entangled partners should absolutely get a say and be able to voice concerns. But I cannot be in a situation where my relationship could be unilaterally ended by someone who isn’t even in it.

If you want to show commitment to your non-entangled partner, that means being willing to stand up for your relationship if you ever need to. This might mean telling your spouse or nesting partner that no, they don’t get to slam a veto down. It might mean speaking up when your friends or family (if you’re out to them) dismiss your non-entangled relationship as not real, not serious, or not important.

Keep the promises you make (and don’t make ones you can’t keep)

To my ex, promises made to me were always breakable if anything better came up (or his wife just had a bad day). This prevented me from ever feeling truly important to him.

In general, if you make a promise or commit to a plan with your partner, you should do everything you can to honour it. Emergencies happen, of course. Part of being in a long-term relationship means being flexible enough to roll with the punches when crises arise. But breaking promises or cancelling plans for minor reasons impedes building a true sense of commitment in a relationship, in my opinion.

The other piece of this is not making promises you can’t keep. My ex used to tell me that we – me, him, and his wife – would all live together and I’d be an equal co-primary someday. I eventually realised this was never going to actually happen. If I’d known that earlier, I could have adjusted my expectations accordingly. Instead, by promising something he never intended to actually follow through on, he deprived me of the ability to make an informed and consensual choice about how much I wanted to commit to that relationship.

If your non-entangled partner is asking for something, it can seem kinder to say “yes, someday” then just keep pushing it off into the distance. But if the real answer is “no, never” or “probably not,” it’s actually much better to tell them that. Hearing “no” to something you want is never fun. But it’s much better than being strung out on a false promise and then being let down again and again.

What does commitment without entanglement mean to you?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’m so curious how other non-monogamous people handle this.

[Guest Post] 5 Questions to Ask Before You Open Your Marriage by Minda Lane

I’m thrilled to have another new-to-C&K writer for you today! Minda Lane (she/her) is telling us about what she learned when she first explored consensual non monogamy, and 5 questions you should consider asking yourself before you open your marriage. I found Minda’s story profoundly relatable. I hope it resonates with you, too – whether you’re polyam, monogamous, or somewhere in the middle.

5 Questions to Ask Before You Open Your Marriage by Minda Lane

The prospect of opening a monogamous marriage is, for many people, titillating. If you’re like I was, the potential is so thrilling you might not be thinking with your—ahem—brain. 

Before my husband, Jack, and I opened up, I thought about it privately for months. Marriage and family life had begun to feel too predictable. I started to feel desperate for a break from the routine, from the known. I wanted to feel young and vibrant like I once had, before I started storing Kleenexes in my shirtsleeves and worrying about things like health savings accounts and whether my kid was having too much screen time. 

When I brought up opening our marriage, the conversation went better than I hoped. We quickly ordered every related book we could find: Dating in Captivity by Esther Perel, The Ethical Slut by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton, and various others. But the information was too hypothetical. I needed to dip my toe in the pool before I could relate to what I was reading. 

We decided to go for it. Never mind wading in—sexting, playing with others nearby, or a soft swap (where no penetrative sex occurs.) Jack and I did a cannonball, dating independently, with condom use as our only hard and fast requirement. 

I’ll summarize our experience for you: it didn’t go well.    

To save you the trouble we went through, I’ve prepared a list of questions to consider before you try to open your marriage.

Do you still want to be with your partner?

Plenty of people have an affair because they lack the self-awareness, skill, or courage to tell their partner that they want out of the relationship. There are also plenty of people that seek to have an open relationship for the same reasons. 

You might think you’re sparing their feelings by avoiding the truth, or maybe you want to open your marriage to preserve your options because you’re not sure. Whatever your motives, it’s best to be forthcoming. Tell your partner how you’re feeling. Set them free. You’ll save time, spare yourselves a lot of drama, and maybe even preserve your friendship.

Are you and your partner mutually interested in opening?

It’s not uncommon for couples to disagree about opening up, or about the what’s “allowed” under their new agreements. Perhaps one partner wants to be able to have sex with other people but the other is only comfortable with light flirting or trading photos.

In this instance there are four potential outcomes, and two of them will be determined by the partner that wants more: they can either give up on their desire, or cheat. Or you can break up.

The only way forward together is to continue to talk and work at it. Reading and discussing the material or working with a therapist who is experienced with consensually nonmonogamous relationships are useful ways to ensure the conversation stays positive and productive. If there isn’t full agreement around the new arrangement, trying to open your marriage is going to cause a lot more problems than it can fix.

Have you done your own personal work? 

I had no idea until I started dating again that I had an insecure anxious attachment style, which I learned about in the book Attached, by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S. F. Heller, M.A. Insecure anxious attachment is characterized by preoccupation with a love interest, insecurity, need for reassurance, and sometimes consuming worry.

You can imagine the problems that ensue from this dynamic, which I repeated over and over until I finally figured it out. If I’d had this awareness earlier, not to mention processing early childhood trauma to a greater extent, I would have saved myself and Jack a lot of heartache. 

Do you and your partner communicate well?

I always thought Jack and I had great communication. I talked a lot and he listened. What I didn’t realize is that he had a more passive style. His cues were more subtle. Instead of telling me outright something hurt his feelings, he showed it in a facial expression, or by withdrawing.

The first time I hit it off with a lover, I didn’t want to acknowledge that I sensed Jack was struggling with it, because it would have meant slowing down, and I didn’t want to spoil my fun. He did his best to endure the hard feelings and give me space, but it was costly to us both. We couldn’t address the issues that remained unnamed.  

What I know now is: unless you are willing to tell the compassionate truth and give grace to your partner as they share their desires and experience, it will be very difficult to proceed with the kind of transparency needed to prevent issues from cropping up later. 

Practice saying the hard truths before you open your marriage for real (I want you to touch me this way, sometimes I fantasize about so and so, I am afraid that…) and make space for one another’s experience. Consensual nonmonogamy has great potential to nourish your primary or anchor relationship and learning to communicate with more empathy and clarity is one way it can do that. 

Are you in it for the long haul?

Relationships, like people, change over time. New lovers or partners will likely come and go, and when they do, it can cause ripples in the original partnership. But it would be a mistake to reorient your existing relationship for an affair that may fizzle inside of three months. I learned this the hard way—Jack and I had considerable struggles over a connection I shared with a lover. When that relationship ended I was left with a sinking feeling of “what for?”

Ideally, when the inevitable waves of New Relationship Energy, fear, and envy come, you can ride the waves together, knowing that difficult emotions can exist without requiring action. Jealousy, frustration, sadness, grief… consensual nonmonogamy is likely to trigger a host of feelings between you. In those times you have to lean into the love, tenderness, humor, passion, and friendship that drew you together in the first place. Honor one another, be true to yourself, and remember that lust is fickle, but love is enduring.

About the author

Minda Lane is a freelance writer based in Seattle who has recently completed a memoir relating her experience of nonmonogamy. Follow her on Instagram @monogamishbook or @mynameisminda.

If you enjoyed this piece, supporting the blog via the Tip Jar helps me keep bringing in awesome guest writers to share their wisdom with you all!

Reflections on Four Years

Yesterday (11/11/20) was the fourth anniversary of my relationship with my secondary partner, The Artist. This year has not been easy – we only live an hour from each other, and at the time of writing we haven’t seen each other in a little over 9 months. (For context, in non-pandemic times our average was once to twice a month.)

In honour of them and all they’ve given me in our time together, I thought I’d share a few reflections on our relationship.

It’s possible to have a secondary relationship that is truly, deeply joyful

Years ago, I wrote a defence of hierarchical polyamory and how people need to lay off judging it as Always And Absolutely Unethical. I said at the time that I was happy being The Artist’s secondary partner, and I stand by that now.

We have no desire to be each others’ primary partner. We each have our person that we live with and have entangled our lives with, and we love them very much. What we have with each other is different.

When people decry secondary relationships, it’s usually because they’ve been in one where they got burned. And I’m sorry for that, because I’ve been there. But this relationship has affirmed what I’ve always believed: that it’s possible to have a secondary relationship that is loving, nourishing, and joyful.

Because secondary doesn’t mean “just sex” or “less important” or “I don’t really care about you.” In the last four years, The Artist and I have had some amazing experiences together and shared mutual care and support in crises. We’ve held each other up and we’ve had each other’s backs. It might be secondary, but it still matters. A lot.

Taking it slow works out well sometimes

There’s been a post sitting in my drafts for over 2 years that I might publish eventually that explores this point in more detail. The working title is Fucking is Easy, Loving is Harder.

Because it took me a long-ass time to fully open up in this relationship. I got very adept at slamming a lid on my real feelings, keeping my emotions in check, because I was still convinced there was a catch. That I liked them more than they liked me, that they’d get bored with me, that I’d fuck it up. Saying I love you took me just shy of two years.

Because love is high stakes. The highest. Letting someone in is fucking hard when you’ve been hurt multiple times, especially when you’re an abuse survivor. By taking it slowly, my brain had time to catch up to my heart. And the trust we built was real, not based on impulsivity or rushing headfirst into something without thinking it through.

We can get through a lot

As I mentioned at the start of this post, we haven’t seen each other since February (it’s now November.) We currently have no idea when we’ll be able to see each other again. The UK is back in lockdown, and COVID-19 cases are still soaring. At this point, I’m expecting the total length of our separation time to stretch to a full year or more. If it doesn’t, I’ll consider that a pleasant surprise.

Is it easy? Fuck no. Does it suck? Yes. A lot. But have we got through it so far and do I believe we’ll keep getting through it? Yes and yes.

It’s not all been hot sexting and mushy online dates, either (though there has been some of that.) Some days, it’s been nothing more than an “everything sucks, but I love you” message. Of course there have been moments I’ve wondered if our relationship could survive this, if the long separation will result in them deciding they don’t need me any more, if one of us will just get too fucking depressed to keep this thing going.

But overall? I feel like if we can survive nine months to a year of lockdown, we can survive a lot of things.

I love them super-much

Basically, I think that’s what I’m trying to say, here. This is a fucking weird love-letter, but it’s a fucking weird year, so this is what I have right now.

I love you, sweetheart. Here’s to the next four.

Want to help me keep (over)sharing my love/sex life with you all? The tip jar is open!

All the Things “You, Me, Her” Got Wrong About Polyamory

SPOILER ALERT! This post will contain spoilers for You, Me, Her seasons 1-3, so if you care and haven’t watched yet, click off this post now.

You may remember my ridiculous quest to recap every episode of this stupid show, which fizzled out somewhere in the middle of Season 1 because I ran out of time, energy and fucks to give? If not, go read them. It’s snarktastic, I promise you.

In case you haven’t seen it, You, Me, Her is an American comedy-drama series following suburban married couple Jack (Greg Poehler) and Emma (Rachel Blanchard) as they enter into a polyamorous triad relationship with 25-year-old college student and escort, Izzy (Priscilla Faia).

Instead of reviewing this mess one episode at a time, I thought I’d bring you all the things I think it got wrong about polyamory – so far – in one easy post.

1. Izzy would never date these two idiots.

Izzy is a beautiful, 25-year-old college student who is escorting her way through university for the money. When Jack hires her for a date and then Emma later (having found out) does the same thing, she inexplicably decides she’s super duper into both of them for some fucking reason. That would never happen. Any sex worker in Izzy’s place would do her job, take the damn money, and leave this pair to work out their shit in suburban hell by themselves.

2. It’s PORTLAND, not the Bible Belt.

This show is set in Portland, Oregon – a city famous for being super-duper liberal and where I know for a fact there’s a huge polyamorous community. Sure, there are some conservative people there (they’re everywhere, sadly) but the idea that being out as non-monogamous – or even bisexual – in fucking Portland would totally destroy Emma’s life is patently unrealistic. If they wanted that narrative to work, they should have set it in rural Alabama or something.

3. Being bisexual is apparently a worse crime than cheating.

There’s a scene in their therapist’s office where Jack shames the hell out of Emma for telling her bisexual origin story and having slept with women before they met. Seemingly forgetting he cheated on her with an escort about, ooh, a week before. (Also, Emma later declares that her bisexuality “wasn’t a thing,” despite having relationships with four – FOUR – women! That is definitely “a thing”.)

4. Partners are not commodities that you have to share out equally.

Jack and Emma agree that they each get “two nights with her… I mean you” per week. They then have a debate about who “gets” her first. This is gross beyond belief. She’s a human being, not a pie that you both want equal numbers of slices of. Ugh.

5. Dating someone new isn’t how you inject sexual spark back into your ailing marriage.

Jack and Emma’s idea is that they’ll each go on dates with Izzy, then come back fired up and ready to ravish the hell out of each other. That’s not how polyamory works. That’s not even how feelings or sex drives work! And it’s, once again, objectifying as all hell. They’re basically using her as a human sex toy. Also, Jack gets mad when Emma comes back from a date and isn’t up for fucking him right there and then. Your partner doesn’t owe you sex just because they just went on a date with someone else!

6. Jealousy IS inevitable. That doesn’t mean courting it is good for your relationship.

Jealousy is normal and fine, as long as you deal with it in a healthy way. Trying to make your partner jealous deliberately in order to… what, make them want you more? is a REALLY bad idea. And half the time seems to be these idiots’ entire game. Jack and Emma use Izzy to make each other jealous. Izzy uses Andy (who is a dick but seems really into her) to make Jack and Emma jealous.

7. Treating someone like crap then chasing them through an airport isn’t romantic!

Jack and Emma treat Izzy like total crap for the entire show. One romantic gesture (chasing her through an airport to “bring her home”) isn’t going to make up for that or for doing any of the actual hard, complicated, difficult work of making a relationship between three people work.

8. Polyamory isn’t just for rich white people!

Jack and Emma are the classic middle-aged, upper-middle-class, professional married pair I’d expect to see at a swingers’ club. Nothing wrong with that, except that the polyamorous community is actually hugely diverse. Trust me, we’re all bored as hell of seeing every representation of polyamory reduced down to “rich white people who don’t enjoy sex with their spouses any more”.

9. Even in polyamory you can’t expect someone to fall for two people in the same way, at the same rate, at the same time.

And that’s EXACTLY what Jack and Emma expect of Izzy. At one point, it becomes apparent that Izzy’s connection with Emma is growing stronger while her connection with Jack is developing at a slower pace, and Jack throws a hissy fit to the point of fucking off for several days. This is exactly the kind of expectation inexperienced unicorn hunters put on new partners, and it’s grossly unfair.

10. Sex doesn’t solve your problems. Communication does.

Whenever these three have a problem, they just fuck and it all goes away… until next time. Sex is great but it’s not how you fix your problems. Only actual, honest, open and respectful communication can do that.

11. You don’t have to live with all your partners!

Jack, Emma and Izzy move in together almost the moment they’ve decided to give a triad relationship a go. Not only is this the mother of all bad ideas, it’s just… not realistic. Just as most monogamous people wouldn’t give a new date the keys to their house before things were pretty stable and established, neither do polyamorous people. And regardless of relationship set-up, the “three people sharing a double bed every night” trope is… sweet but unrealistic. Trust me. I can only manage it even in my King bed for a night or two. You can still be polyamorous if you don’t want to live with all your partners, now or ever.

12. Extremely conservative, homophobic parents don’t come around in three seconds flat.

Emma’s parents go from hyper-conservative, openly-homophobic bigots who only care about her having babies, to being totally chill with the accidental dropping of the polyamory bomb in… yeah, less than five minutes of screen time? (Which equates to about an hour in plot-time). People can come around, of course. People question their assumptions when they are directly confronted with them by someone they love. But it usually takes more time than this. Sometimes much more.

13. And finally… NOT ALL POLYAMORY IS A FUCKING MFF TRIAD.

Are we all sick of this very specific picture being painted yet? Good, me too. Let’s move on to something more representative and less relentlessly cishet-male-gazey. Please.

So what’s next? This show has been renewed for seasons 4 and 5. I hate this about myself, but I already know I’ll watch them all. Maybe I’ll even live-tweet them.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please buy me a coffee!