None of the four of us (JTA, Ruth, Claire and I) had planned to make anything special out of Valentine’s Day, which is why I was quite surprised last night to come home from work and find The Cottage kitted out with candles as part of Ruth’s last-minute secret plan to cook a romantic meal for us all. Which was nice, if unexpected (although she’d apparently not planned it herself until earlier in the day, so I’ll let her off).
And so, a good evening of eating, drinking, and chatting was had by all, once JTA had gotten back from work (before then it was mostly a good evening of work – code for Ruth and I, dissertation for Claire), and the evening wore on nicely as Paul came (laden with beer and flowers) to join the party later on.
It occurred to me at the time that it’s now been six months (well, give or take a dozen days or so) since the four of us – the quad, or the Unholy Alliance, as our friends call us – got together in the romantic sense, and, with the exception of my end of year review, it’s been almost three months since I last said anything about it, so I suppose I ought to provide an update.
The four of us are all doing pretty well as a quad, still with plenty of momentum and excitement and without any major hiccups. Perhaps it’s just because my life is so hectic that I’m used to this kind of time management, but it’s my suspicion that I’ve found it the easiest of the four of us to adapt to thinking in not only an “involved in two couples” way rather than an “involved in one couple” way, but also in an “involved in a quad” way, where it’s even more important for the stability of the shape that we communicate how we’re feeling to the others around the square (or kite, or trapezium, or rectangle, or rhombus, or whatever shape we feel like we’re configured in at any given time).
There have, of course, been some challenges in having two girlfriends, each of which has two boyfriends, and I think I’ve down-played these challenges whenever I’ve talked about how things have been going. That’s not to say that they’re particularly troublesome – I’ve had far more complicated relationships than this (like, for example, most of them!) – but I guess I’ve always felt it’s a bit unfair for a guy with two hot-bi-babes on his arm to moan about relationship trouble.
Time management is the big one, obviously: I’ve heard of people with three (or more) long-term partners and I honestly haven’t a clue how they find the time for it. With work, hobbies, charity work, and valuable computer gaming time all vying for space in my already-crowded calendar, something had to give: and it was probably the computer games… =o( That’s not quite true, and it’s a vast oversimplification of the time management problem, but it is true that I seem to have far less free time than I did before (well, duh!) and I’ve had to learn to schedule time “for me” where previously it’d just come naturally. Google Calendar and it’s calendar-sharing and it’s SMS reminders have become my best friend.
Another early challenge came from insularity: the tendency for couples to become “coupley” and just do things together. It turns out that being in a quad makes it even more difficult to say “Hey, I’d quite like to go and spend some time with my other friends now, ok?” It’s taken a while, but we’ve pretty much got the hang of this, now, I think – although it can still be difficult for our friends to see the difference between us being insular and us (me in particular!) simply having very little free time in our lives. Hopefully we can still learn to get better at this.
We’ve all had to learn a lot of new skills in negotiation and communication to help us define our own rules for something that society in general isn’t too helpful about providing. An example that came up during discussion last night was about third-party secrets. When you’re in a couple and somebody tells you something, it’s usually pretty obvious whether or not you’re allowed to share it with your partner. And if it’s not, it’s easy to clarify: “Just between us, right?” And with our various backgrounds, I guess all four of us have learned to be pretty good at keeping secrets. But it can feel a little confusing when you talk to somebody about, for example, the person at the opposite corner of your quad. And what’s the etiquette for supporting those you love when your girlfriend has had an argument with your other girlfriend?
These are the kinds of things we’ve had to learn to solve, and I think we’re doing pretty damn well. We’ve had to learn to be more explicit about how we feel and what we want (“I’m feeling grumpy because I haven’t seen you in awhile – all the times I’ve been free you’ve been with $otherperson. Can we have this Saturday to ourselves?”), because that’s the best way to get what you want – to ask for what you’d like, not what you think you can get away with. We’ve had to learn about other people’s needs and about compromise – something that every relationship has, but that multiplies when you add extra people. We’ve had to learn how to talk frankly as we go through the motions of defining our own rules and our own etiquette – it’s obvious that when you go to the cinema with your lover you should be sitting next to them, but when you go with both your lovers and their other lover, who goes where?
Here in the UK, like most of the world, people are geared-up to understanding “couples” – from forms which have a spot for “partner’s name” (but… which one?) to party invitations that cover you and your sweetie (singular) only. It’s not our place to change those norms, and nor would we want to: we’re not some kind of crusaders for non-monogamous rights. We don’t want left-handed scissors made for us, and we’ve already got the right to vote (although, interestingly, not to all marry one another, not that I’d want to).
So yeah, what I planned to say was “our relationships – they’re all going really well,” and I ended up talking about some of the things that have made it challenging, instead. Ho hum. If I get the impression that people can cope with my smugness, I’ll write about what makes the whole thing great, next time, instead.
For now, though, I’d just like to share something quite profound that Claire said a while back. She said, “I expected polyamoury – for us – to be like a lending library, but it turns out it’s more like a book club.”
And on that note – have a happy Valentine’s Day (for yesterday) – however and with whoever you chose to spend it.