This column will be a documentation of our journey--as a couple--into the realm of polyamory. Since we are in the process of navigating this path right now, this column will detail issues, problems, and roadblocks that we encounter--as we hit them.

Previous editions of this column can be found in the Monthly Columns Archives.

Ethics and power

Authors' Note: This month's column was written mostly by Renaissance Man.

We had an eye opening experience over the last month or two. One that has highlighted that we need to be careful about how we approach relationships with other people, especially people we meet online. After our great experience meeting the friends we have made here, we got a little, well, overconfident maybe, about forming relationships with people who live far away but seem close due to the artificial environment of the Internet. It started with an online connection to a friend of a friend. He and his wife are interested in exploring polyamory in their lives. They had one experience that went badly and have been very cautious ever since.

The four of us were conversing electronically and becoming friends in a long distance kind of way. They were intelligent and funny, had interesting things to say, etc. Pegasus and I talked about how weird it was getting to know someone that way. The joke about “on the internet, no one knows you’re a dog” came up. It is not really possible to learn enough about people when you only have their written words to go on. They live several states away and the likelihood of actually meeting them anytime soon was vanishingly small.

Things accelerated very quickly after about a week and a half between Peg and C (the husband of the couple). There was a lot of banter, flirting, exchanges of sexual innuendo, as well as what therapists call “self-disclosure”. C started to have strong feelings for Peg. He said he was falling in love with her. This pushed a “button” with Peg. The “it feels good to be desired by someone I like” button.

This series of events set off alarm bells for me. They didn’t know anymore about us than we knew about them. How does anybody fall in love based on so little? I talked to Peg about it and she was well aware of the issues involved. She was drawn to C but not willing to leap into anything that was impractical and abrupt.

Other problems were occurring too. Because we have been working to change some of our old patterns of behavior we have been trying to make sure that there are no secrets or hidden conversations. Peg explained this to C and his wife. The four of us had group communication set up, originally at my suggestion but enthusiastically accepted by all.

But C kept sending messages to Peg only. We don’t know how much he told his wife about this, but it bothered me when Peg told me about it. She repeated the explanation and asked him to stop. He was inconsistent about it. He seemed to be running purely on emotion and not thought. He was not saying anything that was wrong or that bothered me particularly, he could have easily said it all to the “group”.

What bothered me, and Peg, was that he seemed to be obsessing about her, and not listening to her. She liked the attention but it was strange. She tried to discuss the realities of the situation with him. Peg wanted to talk about the possibilities of a long distance friendship and what might grow out of it. C wanted to talk about “love”, and “making her happy”, and how soon they could get together. He was going much too fast for my comfort, and even a little too fast for Peg.

We don’t know exactly what happened next. It seemed like there was conversation happening at their house that we didn’t know about. C sent Peg a message, privately again, that he and his wife had talked. His wife’s feeling was that he was stepping outside the bounds of the kind of poly relationship they had agreed to try (finding a woman to be a third partner for the two of them). He said he was very hurt by the fact that he couldn’t pursue his feelings for Peg. He pulled away, saying he wouldn’t be around on the community for a while.

This confirmed my feeling that he was way too volatile to be able to be in a stable poly relationship. It also bothered both of us that he seemed to not be able to honor the boundaries his wife had set. After all, if the agreed-upon goal for them as a couple was to find a female partner for both of them, his actively seeking emotional connections with women who were not acceptable to his wife was a bad pattern. I guessed he would try to reconnect soon and he did come back. We have been talking in a friendly way now for a while.

The ethical part comes in a couple of ways. First is the idea of “following the rules”. We don’t especially like rules per se, but it felt like the boundaries of our relationship were being ignored. I felt rather “dissed” in the process. To my mind, respecting everyone involved in any poly arrangement is the only ethical way to go. This has come up as a topic in the forums more than once and seems to me to be a central issue in making relationships work.

Peg and I have talked many times about the importance of each of us being on good terms with anyone the other might build a relationship with. It is one of the things that makes her relationship with N one I am OK with. N and I are friends; he respects me and my place in Peg’s life. The “love at first sight” and preoccupation that C was feeling was a very different matter. It only seemed to include me as an afterthought—if at all.

The real eye opener in this experience was about both ethics and power. When things with C had settled down into more of a long distance friendship mode Peg had a realization. It suddenly occurred to her that she could have handled things very differently and caused a lot of hurt to several people. She was well aware of needing to be careful in the moment, but the ramifications of what could have happened hit her hard.

If she had told C that she was as eager to get together with him as he was, then he might very well have done something impulsive. Something like hopping a plane to Chicago. That would have been harmful to C’s marriage. It would have been harmful to me. It would, most likely been harmful to C, after all there is no way for Peg to have been the “true love” he seemed to think she was. The inevitable crash of reality would have been harmful to Peg as well when things didn’t work out to a “happily ever after” conclusion.

Peg was very much drawn to the attention C was giving her. She wanted to be loved and desired that strongly. She had been thinking about what it could be like if C and his wife lived closer to us. Had she pursued the wish to meet C and pressured him to act she would have been using power that his feelings gave her. By choosing to not use the power she could have exerted, Peg acted ethically. It was not a happy choice for her. But it was a clear choice, and not difficult to make.

This realization was a bit like the feeling after a near-miss car accident. That “oh my god, that could have been bad, I could have hurt people” feeling. The temptation to manipulate others for self gain is a common human trait. The choice of whether or not to do so is important in any relationship, it seems even more important in a poly relationship. Peg chose to try to play “fair” by C and his wife, keep the lines of communication open, and not get carried away with feelings. It seems to have lost her the chance at this particular relationship. But she and I are learning that there needs to be thought involved in starting a relationship—even one that has a strong emotional pull. This is hard work. But the only way to do this without needlessly hurting everyone involved is the slow careful way. Peg is learning that although it is OK for her to feel things, she needs to think carefully about how acting on those feelings affects others. To apply ethics in the face of the power of feelings.

Pegasus & Renaissance Man; August 16, 2006

Pegasus & Renaissance Man are contributing writers as well as members of this online Community. They can be contacted here or through our message board Forums.


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