Updated: Jul 12, 2020
The best thing about polyamory is that it lets me love myself above others without guilt.
I don’t mean for this to sound selfish; and it isn’t - selfishness is putting your wants above the needs of others. I mean that I can put my needs at the front of the line without guilt. This isn’t an absolute statement… I pretty firmly believe that as a parent, most of the time my kids’ needs come before mine, but I get to come first out of all the adults in my life if I choose to, and polyamory doesn’t have a script that says there’s something wrong with that.
This might be a socialised-as-a-woman thing - we’re taught really early on that we’re supposed to do work to keep things smooth for the greater good: help manage our friends’ moods, our partner’s moods and life, kin-keeping for ourselves and others, a bulk of household management, if not household tasks; and do this all with a smile, with maybe an occasional freakout (that everyone ignores the next day) allowed.
Most of my raised-as-men friends didn’t have those expectations and had to learn to do these tasks over time. They had to learn to manage friends’ moods back, if they expected that service without being jerks (or to not ask for it, and just manage their own, maybe with professional help); to develop their own systems for household work and not ‘need to be asked or not notice’; to do more than go ‘it’s a snit and it’ll blow over’ about a partner’s mood, and be wildly surprised when something is really wrong later; and to remember their own aunt’s birthday, or handle the fallout themselves when they don’t.
But, regardless of whether it’s a bigger-society problem rather a specifically monogamous problem, deciding to not be monogamous and figure out my own arrangements with partners means I can decide to put on my own oxygen mask before theirs - to pick and choose which of these forms of work we can do collectively, which for each other because they’re actually a strength of one of ours, and which independently. Without that being met with “how could you be so selfish?” The person who has gift-giving as a love language and adores buying things that will make people happy, including little cards, can do the kin-keeping, if we agree on that. The person who best manages mood by being an agony aunt for close friends and receiving that in return (you’re looking at her, folks) can happily do that, if we agree on the level of reciprocation necessary for it to not be draining. Breaking one script gives room to break others, like for none of us in a polycule to be in each others’ parenting business, unlike monogamous scripts that say we’re necessarily ‘testing partners to be stepparents’ if we’re parents who are dating. (We could still be doing that; but it should be a choice, not a requirement.)
“But, Laura,” you, gentlereaders, might be saying “This all sounds great, but you’re talking about intentionality, not loving yourself.” That’s true, but that intentionality is a choice I make in order to love myself better. I’m not the best at taking time for myself, at letting my own needs take an appropriately high place on my personal to-do list - and when I remember to, my first instinct is to feel bad about it. Being able to say to myself “you don’t have to do that, you know,” is actually really freeing. It’s the mental equivalent for me of fun self-care (you know, the kind in stock images where you’re in an improbably large bathtub, with wine and a book balanced on a polished wood holder that no one would actually own at my income level); to allow myself more than the required “take my meds or I can’t take care of others” self-care is in a way, radical. It doesn’t make my body image issues perfect, or take away every moment of discomfort - but it lowers my guilt about taking time to exercise instead of trying to talk a partner through something Right. This. Second. It gives me permission to say, I’ll get back to you in 45 minutes when I’ve had a shower after my run, or even (gasp!) to not say anything for 45 minutes and say, “was on my run, but I have time now. Do you need to vent, or want to brainstorm solutions? Is the phone better or texting OK?” And that permission was revolutionary to my life and boundaries. (I learned to have some boundaries, guys! I literally come from a “what are these boundaries? This family doesn’t have boundaries!” family, and I’m learning how to have them! I’ve internalized that they’re allowed!)
So, your best thing might be spreading out your emotional, social, and sexual needs over many partners and friends in a network, without feeling like you “contain multitudes” and therefore can’t find a “One.” Or it might be having more flexibility in what your network of friendships looks like and how intimate they can be, without violating monogamous expectations of who you should rely on. Or it might be avoiding the excessive expectations of being all things to someone. I promise, we’ll get to all of these, and more.
But for me, the best thing about polyamory is that it gives me permission to be my own primary partner. To love myself first and care for myself first, out of all the adults in my life.