“Solo poly? Is that like jumbo shrimp?”
“Oh, I get it…you can sleep with whoever you want. You must get laid all the time.”
“Must be great being exactly what men are looking for.”
In just a couple short years of dating as a polyamorous woman, I feel like I’ve already heard it all.
What I am, what I want, sounds simple enough to me: “I’m polyamorous — so I often have a few romantic relationships happening at a time that work a lot like friendships with an intimacy bonus. I tack on ‘solo’ and call myself ‘solo poly’ because I’m not shopping for a roommate; I like my own space, freedom, and ridiculous work schedule.”
I’ve only bothered defining myself so thoroughly because, frankly, it’s impolite to mislead people when it can be avoided. And most people I meet — even poly people — are looking for that “anchor partner” with whom to build a life. If I know that won’t be me, potential partners should understand and have a chance to consent to that limitation. Fair is fair.
The frequent reading between the lines and solicitations passed off as clarifications don’t necessarily bother me anymore, but they can get old (which is why I mostly stick to online dating, so we can get through that before the date). It’s also perplexing. When I bother trying to figure out how people end up confused, I end up confused myself.
I’m pretty sure that nowhere in my ten-second descriptor do I say: “My dream life is a string of one-night stands!” One-night stands, for me, mean a lot of work and not a great return on my time investment; I personally find them rather unfulfilling, as I prefer people who are enjoyable both with and without their clothes. I’m also fairly certain I don’t say anything that should sound like: “I seek to serve at the will of an otherwise monogamous couple who hope against hope for a committed-only-to-them bisexual woman.” (I am not that unicorn.)
Dudes especially are often confused, needing to rephrase my already simple explanation into terms they know what to do with. When it comes to flirting and dating, people don’t like curve balls — especially people in my age range. Once someone passes 30 or 35, they just want to flip through their mental playbook and whip something out that’s worked before. Say you want something one of these people has never considered — no matter how appealing it might be if they thought about it — and their confidence takes a blow. That, or they look at you and see an opening to a two-dimensional, personal fantasy they would never propose to an actual human being.
I’ve never been what you’d call good at dating. So when the only adult relationship I’d had finally finished disintegrating, I bought myself subscriptions to every dating site as a belated 30th birthday present. The seed of polyamory was probably planted around eHarmony question five gazillion, when I understood that I didn’t want what most people want from a relationship.
When a friend of a friend ghosted after the third date, I did a cost/benefit analysis and decided I was over it. I wasn’t heartbroken. I was just done wasting time I couldn’t get back. “I think I’m just not going to date,” I told my best friend of ten years.
“What? Were you that into him?”
“It’s not about him. It’s like —” (Shit. How to explain this to someone whose natural state was usually “girlfriend”?) “It’s like playing the lottery. A ticket is only a dollar, but if you play every day, soon you’ve wasted thousands. I think I’m just done wasting my proverbial money when all I get is annoyance and frustration. I’m wasting my time.”
“Oh, Katie, don’t give up!” she said via over-emoticoned text message. “You’ll find someone!”
She’d known me since high school and she was spewing platitudes. I tried to exit the conversation gracefully. She kept at it, finally declaring that I was “emotionally exhausting” — a precursor of all the people who would try to convince me I was mono-normative over the next several years.
The less I cared about trying to date, the easier it was to just be me, and I accidentally ended up in a poly-esque situation with three long-term, non-monogamous partners. I realized I didn’t want to get married — where had I ever gotten the idea that I had to do that anyway? I didn’t want a roommate, let alone someone whose schedule appeared on my calendar. I had enough to juggle and already considered my close friends my family; how was I supposed to partition my time to include someone else’s daily needs? The pie chart of my commitments and priorities didn’t — and don’t — have emotional energy or time available for that.
As I considered the logistics of how I would reshape the pie, it was clear to me that I simply didn’t want to. So why was I trying? This was my life, after all, wasn’t it? Why would anyone else care so much how I lived that they would “emotionally exhaust” themselves in an attempt to bring me back into the fold?
I wasn’t sure, but I knew I was done worrying about it. Scratching “get married” off the master Life To-Do List was a huge relief. I felt free and light and…
Fuck. My current poly situation wasn’t sustainable, as I was moving halfway across the country for work. I had no idea how to replicate it, as it had developed through a series of accidents.
Essentially, all I really knew about my romantic future was what I didn’t want.
I’d find more short-lived relief a couple years later when I stumbled upon the concept of polyamory. While the idea of intimate, committed connection without the restriction of having to find the one was definitely me, it felt like I’d just doomed myself to a dating future as frustrating as my dating past. I eventually landed in the corner of polyamory that fit — the kind that didn’t require me to have an anchor/live-in partner — through trial and error; i.e., an inordinate number of bad, boring first dates.
Adopting the label of “polyamorous” comes with enough raised eyebrows. When I am ordered to give something like an impromptu PowerPoint on “what that means,” the owners of the raised eyebrows are inevitably sorry they asked, as the confusing addition of “solo” requires its own entire presentation. Friends, family, colleagues, random strangers in bars, and people who’ve feigned initiation into the poly vernacular well enough in an online back-and-forth to land the first date all share some variation of disbelief. They all seem to buy into the notion that I’ve created this relationship style for myself on purpose, when in fact it required years of stumbling about haplessly before finally figuring out who I am and what I want at an age when most people are already partnered off.
I still know far more poly women than men, which clouds my anecdotal reporting on how men versus women react when hearing I’m non-monogamous. However, I do get the most straight-up judgement from mono-normative women who assume that being a tiny minority of a tiny minority of a relationship style must be the best, because I sound like what our culture tells men they’re supposed to want: a strong, independent woman who doesn’t demand monogamy.
Yeah, it’s been a real picnic in the early going.
Of course, to be fair, my dating life was mostly a disaster for the 20 years I was trying to cram myself into the hetero/mono box deemed “normal” before realizing who I was and what I wanted. So maybe I can’t put it all on clueless bros and their fondness for worn-out lines, or grass-is-always-greener ladies who see my life as somehow uncomplicated and more interesting. But ask anyone who’s into something others deem unconventional — even people who are largely fulfilled by that kink or love or activity or hobby — and they’ll tell you they spent (okay, spend) an exhaustive amount of time educating the people around them about who they are and “what that means.”
I’m not really sure how other people end up with a particular relationship style. (I’m loathe to call poly my “identity,” because it feels like co-opting the queer community, and I’m not queer.) All I know is that even though it took me until I was 33 to work through the why, I was always twitchy when people asked the typical “catching up” questions because my answers were never “right.”
“Oh, Katie, it’s so good to see you!” an aunt or friend of my mom’s would crow, glancing over my shoulder to see if I had a +1. Seeing none, a hopeful “So, tell me, anyone special in your life these days?” would follow.
I alternated between “Um, not really” and “Oh, a couple here and there” with a toothy grin, depending on my mood. Whichever I went with, my mom, if in earshot, would cock her head to the side and make that noise. “Tck – uhh” — a cross between the scolding “tsk-tsk” people have been making with their tongues and the space right behind their incisors since the beginning of time and a grating noise of pity.
In my early twenties, I hated to disappoint my mom and all the people who I was sure loved me and were becoming increasingly concerned that I wouldn’t meet someone and get married in time to have a horde of children. I’m confident at almost 100% that that noise was entirely about the barren landscape where my mother thought her grandchildren should have been.
“Katie, you look so natural holding him! Look how good he’s being!” my mom and cousin cooed at me when I held my youngest second cousin at a reunion. I’d been hanging with the giggling toddler because he was content to play with my sunglasses and not ask annoying questions about the validity and direction of my life. Cheerios and sunglasses — simple things I could hold in my hand and were easily replaceable if they hit the ground and caught the attention of one of my aunt’s Great Danes.
The pressure from others to conform to their idea of happily-ever-after was like a 50-pound backpack I was constantly carrying around. I assumed this was normal; I didn’t have anyone to ask because everyone around me and everyone I saw in media, entertainment, and the history books seemed down with the standard plan, the usual goals: school (to whatever level) —> meet someone —> court/get engaged —> get married —> buy house and have children. And possibly a dog. You took vacations with your neighbors and neighbors’ kids. Then you retired.
And so it all built. The pressure — and, at times, terror — swelled as I watched the years roll by. Mile-markers in the rearview mirror grew smaller through my late twenties and early thirties. People weren’t even relieved that I didn’t settle down and stay with my abusive ex.
“Whatever happened to Josh?” I got asked at family function after family function.
“Oh, we broke up,” I’d say with a shrug.
The longer I wandered around without a +1, the more awkward those interactions became. It was as though no one knew what to talk to me about. As though nothing was happening to me because I wasn’t partnered.
One day I found myself thinking about children for a split second longer than normal. It hit me that this was the first time I’d really thought of kids as more than a nice idea or an inevitability; I was imagining them as real, tiny humans who would be part of my life every day. Just like that, the idea of “have children” went the way of “get married,” and the Life To-Do List seemed completely blank.
The more I have to explain my intimate life to others, the more I daydream about a culture that doesn’t demand I — or anyone else — do so. What if we didn’t have any assumptions at all? What if, when we went on a first date, we all had to ask the other person what they were looking for and where they’d live if they could live anywhere and whether they want marriage or kids or days full of surfing and golf or knitting and gardening? What if, when we asked someone out, we were actually asking out that person and not shopping for someone to fill a predetermined role we’d imagined for them? Dating shouldn’t be like hiring an assistant or a pet sitter.
None of this is our fault, of course. It’s no wonder we’re all so goal-oriented when everything from the patriarchy to tax law was set up to favor having a traditional life partner — and pretty early in life. Finding someone and settling down by a certain age has less to do with anyone’s biological clock than the combination of a built-in life checklist and the fact that approximately none of us can afford to live without at least one roommate. Hell, many of us can’t even pay off student loans without the security of second income privilege to bridge the unemployment gap and allow us to take chances like changing jobs or moving to a new city.
Dating as myself — pursuing relationships that I find fulfilling, no matter what our culture or tradition tell me I’m supposed to want — is my daily act of rebellion against the status quo. I can’t change the tax code or eliminate student debt by myself, but I can do this one thing my way. And the more people who hear about how I see possibilities instead of dead ends (even if it does mean explaining myself, and non-monogamy, here and there) and more love instead of less and a bigger family instead of none at all, the more this rebellion resonates.
I don’t need to convert people — I am not a polyamory evangelist. I appreciate and delight in things considered (though they need not necessarily be) “traditional”: I cry at weddings when I know people are in love; I fawn over newborns and puppies; I celebrate when my nieces hit developmental milestones like rolling over and mastering the alphabet. I’m more of a satisfaction and liberation evangelist. Because if we all bothered to ask the person across the table or on the neighboring barstool what they dreamed of and imagined, wouldn’t all of our relationships be more founded in love, respect, and fun? Dreams and love are fun, folks. And not just to our romantic partners — to our friends, siblings, colleagues, everyone! I’m here for the fun revolution.
Let’s start by trying something simple that rarely happens: stop assuming and start asking. If we all did that, I’m not the only one who would stop having to justify the things I want. We don’t all have the same Life To-Do Lists — or at least we wouldn’t if we all had the space and support to consider what personally moves us and makes us happy. And happy people require very little explanation.
Katie Klabusich is a contributing writer for The Establishment and host of The Katie Speak Show on Netroots Radio. Her work can also be found at Rolling Stone, Truthout, RH Reality Check, and Bitch Magazine.