After traditional childhood and young adult milestones of high school and college and their attendant clubs, sports, fraternities, choruses, theater groups, and general encouragement of group engagement, most adults in North America are left with an expectation that now you should be Settling Down Into Serious Adulthood. Even if you’re still quite young, the socialization you’re doing should be with that same group of friends you’ve built, plus some dating, and you should be trying to meet someone and form a nuclear family who have other Couple Friends and Nuclear Family Friends.
These expectations, of course, are among the expectations that polyamory ends up subverting. That subversion of expectations is part of the visceral negative reaction some polyamorists get when explaining their relationships to people, in fact. There’s a tendency to react that polyamorists “just want to date around - so why can’t they just do that and stop seeing people while they do?”
There are a couple parts to the problem of this question of cultural expectations around connection that I want to talk about. First, that we only really “allow” people social connection through very limited means after a certain age, and dating is one of the principal ones of them, so even though many polyamorous people are building a variety of different connections (not all traditional romantic and sexual at once “dating relationships”), the early parts of those relationships still “look like dating.” Second, that because culturally we socialize men (or at least AMAB people) to only express feelings to their partners, they’re driven to date and call more of their connections romantic partnerships than they might otherwise.
I opened this post talking about the variety of ways we’re encouraged to socialize as kids and young adults. We’re pushed into social activities of many varieties; and just plain old going to school through high school means we meet more people of a greater variety than we might at any later point in our lives. For me, the high point of variety of folks around me was university - I did my BA in Montreal and between living in a big city, being involved in a couple student groups, and going to a good-sized university, I met a huge number of people, many of whom I’m still in touch with now, more than a decade later. It was a truly varied, co-ed, roughly of a cohort (all within a ten-year age range) kind of group. But, I don’t live anywhere near where I went to school anymore and my nearest friend from that era is almost 4 hours drive away. So at some point after I left that city three years post graduation, the “making friends as an adult” step had to happen.
When you’re a student, even though everyone’s studying and working at least a bit, there’s a certain amount of “well, we’ll study together and that’s social,” and “we’re young so who needs sleep, let’s go do this thing” energy that kind of keeps people going - and student groups for things like intramural sports are forgiving of absences for paper deadlines and are usually big enough that you’re not the reason your team can’t play if you don’t make it. Adult versions of the same, although often very well organized by passionate people, really require your scheduling to be in order and that you be significantly less flaky than you were at 20. And, unfortunately for me, as a chronically ill person with ADHD, I remain exactly as likely to miss a day of something as I was then. So I personally can sign up for low-pressure activities, that align with my hobbies… which is great! But means I go to a knitting night that is a ton of fun once every six to eight weeks, occasionally go to something in the local kink scene, and volunteer for a ren faire once a summer, because I can be on time for a one time event. I’ve made friends from all these things but it took like two years or more - and the ones that were faster than that? Were folks that asked me to go out on things that were definitely dates, even though the date ended with both of us going “we’re friends!”
One of the nice things about polyamory is that we acknowledge that all kinds of connections are meaningful and that only you individually define what’s a relationship for you. My best friend and I had about a year and a half where we went on platonic dates (because we don’t have romantic/sexual interest in each other and both require that for relationships - just, to be as weirdly specific with Greek words as possible, ludus “playful love” for each other) pretty much weekly because we needed this loving relationship’s support and depth at that time more acutely than usual - and that intimate friendship is still really important to both of us, but I don’t think either of us would draw a map of our polycules that connects us unless someone specified to include emotional connections. Other people, however, focus on those kinds of connections much more heavily in their concepts of their polycules. My friend Kimota Tigerlily, who’s been on the podcast with me a couple times, has talked a lot about how the primary benefit of polyamory for her is not being limited in her exploration of the emotional intimacy of friendships.
Once you’re in those friendships, it’s easy to deepen them wherever - your backyard, someone’s living room, what have you - but when you feel that first spark of “This person is really cool and I just want to know them,” and have no particular design of how, our cultural script for that is “ask them out on a date.” It can be as simple as coffee or more obviously let’s get dressed up and go out for dinner, but the expectation of “let’s go on a date” can be very loaded. Folks can assume it means you want a whole escalator out of them when what you want is to see what the connection is in the first place, and that’s why polyamorous people scream about communication from the rooftops.
It doesn’t help matters that men (especially cis het men) are generally socialized to only confide in and show emotions to people they are in intimate relationships with. This leads to a skew of “Oh I feel some connection, let’s make this a date and see if I can start calling this a partnership of some kind so I can feel more comfortable with vulnerability here.” I don’t mean to imply that many men haven’t done significant work to undo some of this and build real connections with their friends - but it’s really hard to undo decades of pressure to keep your friendships surface level and only “go deep” in the context of intimate relationships. So you combine the fact that men are often pushed into a limited subset of hobbies - sports, maybe theater if they started it when they were younger, board games - and that dating is the primary “meet new people” venue outside of work for adults and you get a lot of “well I guess I’m going to date to meet this need for connection,” and “I’m going to see if I can make this a partnership, or call it a name that means something other than friend, to make sure this remains a safe space to be vulnerable.” While in theory polyamory means that we can and should be dismantling this completely, that’s a whole lot of things to take apart all at once. Just the idea of sexual or romantic exclusivity is a big enough leap that it can take people months to get used to. As we’ve said before on the blog and the podcast, most people’s polyamory looks different three months in and three years in and five and ten years in - not because of some magical enlightenment, but because you meet more people, you figure out more boundaries within yourself, you get comfortable with one step and you realize there was something else there you want to work on.
For a lot of us, that next thing to work on is just focusing on the idea of connection. Of saying ‘deepening the connections I have is really important to me’ or ‘igniting that spark of connection with new people is really important to me’ and honoring those feelings in having those relationships, whether they be romantic or friendships. It can come back to looking like dating a lot because that’s the world we live in - but we’re focused on the sensation of, as the relationship anarchist manifesto puts it “a wish to meet and explore each other.”
You can find the podcast at readyforpolyamory.fireside.fm, you can join us on facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/readyforpolyamory, follow on Twitter @lauracb88 & instagram @readyforpolyamory, and if you'd like to support us financially we're on Patreon at www.patreon.com/readyforpolyamory and ko-fi at ko-fi.com/readyforpolyamory.