Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again

a black poodle looking up at the camera with its mouth open and its tongue out
Image by David McKelvey / CC BY

Today’s piece is a guest blog post from Fluffy, an academic in-training, who is studying organizational behavior in hopes of making the world a better place.

They previously contributed four articles to Poly.Land:

  1. Is There a Right Time or Way to Break Up a Relationship?
  2. I Was Treated as a Disease Vector: Why There Are So Few Gay Men in Pansexual Polyamory
  3. Being Single Sucks, But We Don’t Want to Hear About It
  4. Consent Culture Is Hard, Yo. 

Fluffy’s regular blog is Eclectic Discourse (where pith goes to die; in-depth looks at awkward topics).

And check out what they wrote this time around for Poly.Land:

Everything I’ve Ever Learned About Non-Monogamy My Puppy Taught Me All Over Again

In April 2017 I was finishing a difficult but rewarding year living just about 40 minutes outside of L.A., studying organizational psychology and learning as much as I could from the innovative and brilliant work being done at my school. I was also preparing to move home, back to Cleveland, where I would start in a different program, leaving that same hard work behind for something new.

My puppy, on the other hand, was being born. One in a litter of 12. His parents were champion standard poodles and he lived at the breeder’s until he was just over six months old.

In a previous essay for Poly.Land I discussed the concept of “holding space” for potential relationships, on dancing that delicate line singleness presents you. Ori, my puppy, was an intentional choice to change the functionality of my space. I wanted to add a feature that spanned the entire room, that would be as defining to me as I was to it.

And he hasn’t disappointed.

In truth, he’s taught me a lot of things I already knew about love, relationships, and even non-monogamy. Here are a few:

On Jealousy

I call one of my mother’s dogs up to my lap; she’s older now and has trouble jumping up on the couch but hates to be assisted. She revs up and gets up the nerve to make a leap when suddenly, out of nowhere, a tremendous black ball of fluff hurtles through the air above her and next to me. It’s Ori. My mother’s dog abandons the attempt, disgruntled.

Dogs get jealous. Don’t let anyone suggest differently. What’s curious is how they choose to manage their jealousy (or not). Watching Ori interact with my mother’s dogs, it’s clear that he can’t stand for them to have access to me like he does. He needs the security of being my dog. He wants to be the primary dog that gets attention from me.

It was worse when things were new. When he wasn’t sure I was his person. When he wasn’t sure I thought of him as my dog. When I went away for years (read: hours) and would show back up unexpectedly, he thought I was gone forever.

Now he’s more secure. When we go to visit my mom and her dogs, he delights in sharing. Her dogs are allowed to spend time in my lap. He gladly brings toys and chews to the other dogs, offering for them to try. He knows that even if I am not paying attention solely to him that we are inexplicably linked.

Jealousy is a signal that we’re missing something. In this case (as it often is), Ori felt insecure. He didn’t know how (or even if) he fit in with me and with my life. What was his place? How much of me was his? Was it really enough? As we got to know each other and spend more time together these answers emerged, and he gradually grew more secure. Jealousy isn’t evil in non-monogamy or polyamory. It is an important sign, a way that our body attempts to communicate with us. Like pain, jealousy is rooted in fear.

If we listen and share with our partners, we can soothe jealousy. It isn’t always pleasant, and sometimes it’s easier to walk away, but it is possible.

On Having More than One Person (Who Have More than One Person)

“He loves me!” my mother exclaims as Ori, so overjoyed to see her, practically vibrates before jumping straight in the air. It’s only been a week since he’s seen her, but you would think it’s been a year. Ori reserves this behavior for roughly three people in his life: me, my mother, and his sister/littermate (whom my brother owns).

Every time I come home from school Ori sits prettily, waiting patiently for me to unlock the gates to his area in my apartment. Immediately he zooms past me and the gate to the front door where he can barely contain his excitement (or his bowels). As soon as we get outside and he does his business, he can no longer control himself; he jumps in the air, rubs against me, licks any exposed skin he can find. Once he jumped literally into my arms.

Ori is equally happy to see all of us, but it’s happy in a different way. He knows my mom will spoil him with treats (I prefer more behavioral training so treats are a rare thing). He knows his sister will play with him in ways he won’t with humans. He knows that I will feed him, give him water, protect him, and more. Each of us has a specific place in his life that he defines both by his feelings and what we bring to him.

Even more, each of us have others in our lives too. One of my best friends sees Ori pretty regularly, and it’s clear she’s his friend, too. When we’re together, he sleeps or gets into trouble while we’re distracted. My mom has her own dogs (who are by extension “mine” as well), and he loves to see and interact with them. His sister has my brother and his other dog, and he loves to see them both as well. Ori knows all of these people and understands them as fitting into a complex web of networks.

Social Network Theory and Social Exchange Theory posit that individuals exist as nodes within a network, connecting to other nodes through the exchange of information, ideas, and relationships. Similarly, in non-monogamy a vast web of people can be connected in ways that are more intimate and complex than in mononormative spaces.

We typically understand our relationships (platonic, sexual, romantic, and otherwise) in terms of not only the things we exchange, but the quality of the relationship itself. We think in labels only two steps or so removed from ourselves (e.g. my partner, my metamour, my meta-metamour) but in reality we have a vast network of connections both indirect and direct, labeled and unlabeled, that allow us to draw on specific social capital from both the web and individuals within it.

Ori knows that through his direct connections he gets certain things. But he also knows that his indirect connections come with both consequences and rewards. He navigates those webs and the social currency within to operate compassionately while still fulfilling his own needs and desires. My dog understands that while certain things cost (e.g. sitting on command) they typically come with some sort of reward (e.g. a treat or an ear-scritch).

On Ambiguity

There’s nothing quite like the ambiguity of two living beings who cannot communicate directly. Ori has taught me over again the importance of indirect communication.
Before I learned his different barks and mannerisms, Ori and I would often struggle to understand each other. “I need WATER damnit” was interpreted as “take me outside!” “NO ORI DON’T PEE ON THE COUCH” was interpreted as “what a good boy, look at you!” “The hell is this thing, and why is it so loud?” was interpreted as “oh, this is an interesting toy, can I have it?”

Once we started to get into a groove, where I understood and reinforced certain actions and he did the same for me, I was frustrated to find that sometimes he would change it up. Instead of barking low once then circling twice to indicate he needed to go outside (affectionately called “the potty dance”), Ori began laying his head on my knee. Instead of staring at a given bowl if he was thirsty or hungry, he began to bark his playful bark and wag his tail.

Despite all conclusions to the contrary, human beings (like dogs) are in a constant state of change. How we communicate, what we communicate, and when we communicate all change over the course of time and as we experience new and different realities. This is why (and how) couples can have the same fight over and over and over, even after coming to what seems like a definitive conclusion. It’s also how something that wasn’t a problem before can become a problem later.

As a relationship or connection is new, we’re moving through a lot of ambiguity. We create a shared language for understanding each other and slowly continue to evolve how we connect. Sometimes we find that a method of communication no longer works for us. Other times, we discover something new and novel that we try and love.

Part of connecting to each other is embracing the ambiguity of human (or just living) experience.

On Taking Things Seriously

If he could speak English I imagine Ori would nod sagaciously at me and lick my cheek before saying, “The only things you should always take seriously, Hyas, are food, water, potty, and naps.”

To be sure, Ori tends to take many things seriously. Change terrifies him, as do other dogs (especially if they’re small and loud). Loud sounds are legitimate threats, and sometimes it is important that petting start/stop right NOW.

But these are passing fancies. Sometimes petting is just acceptable. Sometimes a loud sound isn’t even worth looking up for. Occasionally dogs can be friends.

Food, water, potty, and naps, however, are eternally important and serious matters.

If we take our relationships too seriously all the time we forget how to have fun within them. Not that fun can’t be serious, but if it’s never silly and ridiculous it isn’t truly alive. It’s the difference between survival and thriving. Sometimes we need to run up and down the sidewalk while barking our heads off. Sometimes we need to jump off the bed and slide into the hall on accident. Sometimes we need to lay on our back only to playfully attack the hand that comes to rub our exposed tummies.

If we don’t, what’s the point?


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