Stories. The world’s full of them. From the fairy tales of childrens’ bedtimes, through the cautionary tales of friends whose good intentions nevertheless landed them in hot water, to the good old-fashioned “boy meets girl” romance.
The stories we tell ourselves as a society are more than simple entertainment or sharing of experiences, though. They are lessons — canned wisdom on what might happen to us should we find ourselves in a similar position. Without the tale of the Frog Princess I doubt there would be many amphibians out there in danger of being treated with affection by passing royalty, but with the story as widely known it is I imagine many young girls, on being chatted up by a magical toad, would think twice before spurning its advances. It may even be the case that the fable causes even the metaphorical frogs of this world to be treated less dismissively than they might otherwise.
When we’re faced with new and challenging situations the stories we know are often a helpful shortcut in trying to decide what to do. The “We’ve heard that one before and we know how it’s going to end,” voice. Sometimes there are several stories that start with the same situation but with different eventual outcomes but in any case they still give us a head start in our thinking so that we don’t have to consider everything from scratch when we encounter something new. At the very least, it’s reassuring to come to some decision and then be able to point at examples and say, “I’m doing this because that’s what might happen.”
The world is however very short of stories featuring polyamory. When we start talking to people who are new to the concept we are frequently met with responses not to what we’re saying, but to the nearest example from experience, whether that’s personal, second-hand anecdotes or the plot of the latest Hollywood RomCom. The illicit affair. The sham marriage. The commitment-phobe. The seducer taking advantage of the naive victim. And of course, the perennial bowl-of-car-keys party. As a friend of mine once said, explaining poly to people is often not so much an exercise in teaching them
about something as getting them to unlearn the preconceptions they have. These preconceptions come from the stories around us.
Stories also play their part when people are trying to come to terms with feelings of a polyamorous nature. I’ve lost track of the number of “how I discovered poly” explanations which have boiled down to “I was settled with my partner when I found myself falling in love with someone else, and thought it was wrong until I happened across a description of polyamory.” How many more people are instead living with “I was settled with my partner but then I found myself falling in love with someone else, so we split up”? Because that’s what you do — that’s what our stories tell us happens. If we fall in love with someone else we either need to leave the person we’re with (because we obviously don’t love them enough) or we need to break off contact with the new person in the hope of saving the relationship which is so clearly on the rocks.
If you are aware that the lack of relevant stories is an effect of their taboo nature you can perhaps be more readily able to tell yourself “It’s OK, most of the world doesn’t understand my situation so I’ll have to figure it out for myself.” That can be a tiring thing to be doing day-in, day-out, and particularly when what you’re trying to figure out is most likely emotionally challenging. Sometimes there’s no right — or even good — answer, but even figuring out the imperfect but possible answers by yourself can be hard. Unless you’re very confident in what you feel there’s always a danger of thinking, “Perhaps I’m fooling myself and the rest of the world is right after all.”
Over the last few years I have become more and more sure that I am at heart truly polyamorous. I’m not the commitment-phobe, the womanizer or one half of a sham marriage. In the early stages of exploring poly I did have occasional doubts but a real turning point for me was OpenCon in 2010. Why? Because of the stories. Because everyone I spoke to had their own tale to tell. Whether it was similar to mine or completely at odds, whether it had a happy or sad ending, it gave me faith that there were people out there who weren’t living the same few relationship plots that we are surrounded by in the society we live in.
I said earlier that the world is short of stories featuring polyamory. That isn’t actually true. The world is full of stories featuring polyamory, but very few of them are widely told. If you’re here, reading this article, you probably have your own story to tell. It may not involve a cast of dozens of interrelated partners and may not have much drama. It may even be as simple as “We talked about it for a bit but in the end decided it wasn’t for us.” Whether polyamory is the central point or a side issue the world needs more of these stories to be told, so that one day someone wrestling on their own with their conscience, or attempting to explain their lifestyle or feelings to a friend or partner can have the option of saying, “Well you know that story about boy meets girl who meets another girl, and they all live happily ever after? It’s a bit like that.”