Solo Polyamory Raises Important Questions That I’m Glad to Hear People Asking

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Hi Page,

Thank you for your blog. It’s really awesome.

I was wondering if you have written any pieces about solo polyamory and what your opinion is on it?

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You know, I have written about solo polyamory here but only very little. As of this writing, there are really only three articles here that talk about solo polyamory in some way, shape, or form. But looking at the three, they aren’t exactly conventional or comprehensive articles. One was an interview with prominent solo polyamorist and author Amy Gahran. Another was actually a guest post by two of Poly Land’s guest writers (Fluffy and Lady Heat). And the third piece mentions solo polyamory only briefly.

That said, I should note that I did make sure to mention solo polyamory in my second book A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching (it’s even in the glossary in the back of the book).

But receiving your question, it occurs to me that I’ve certainly never done a post for the blog that provided any sort of overview. Nor have I shared my own personal experiences with solo polyamory (and/or ones in the lives of people close to me). So thank you for the question and the opportunity to do it. Let’s go for it.

What Is Solo Polyamory? A Few Definitions

I’m sure a lot of our readers are familiar with the concept of solo polyamory, but for those who aren’t, here’s one definition (the one I wrote for my book):

Solo polyamory (also commonly known as solo poly), is a category of polyamory that covers a wide range of relationships that essentially take a “free agent” approach to polyamory. Many solo polyamorists don’t choose to share a home or finances with intimate partners and generally tend to emphasize themselves as individuals and not part of a couple or triad.

And here’s another, from Amy Gahran (Aggie Sez) at solopoly.net, a wonderful site that I wholeheartedly recommend for any further reading you might want to do on solo polyamory:

Solo polyamory: Flipping these words around, polyamory is, broadly speaking, one approach to engaging in (or being open to having) ethically nonexclusive relationships involving sex, romance, or deep emotional intimacy. What distinguishes solo poly people is that we generally do not have intimate relationship which involve (or are heading toward) primary-style merging of life infrastructure or identity along the lines of the traditional social relationship escalator. For instance, we generally don’t share a home or finances with any intimate partners. Similarly solo poly people generally don’t identify very strongly as part of a couple (or triad etc); we prefer to operate and present ourselves as individuals.

In that article, Gahran emphasizes that there are a range of different expressions of solo polyamory. “People can be solo poly by choice or circumstance,” Gahran writes. “That is, some people prefer solo polyamory and are unwilling to strongly merge their identity or life infrastructure with their partners. Others simply happen to be effectively solo: they may desire (or be open to) primary-style relationships in the future, but they just don’t happen to have one at the moment.”

And just as seeing no one at all or having only one partner at any given time doesn’t automatically revoke someone’s polyamorous status in general, a solo polyamorist can identify that way even if they are seeing no one at all or just one person.

When I First Became Polyamorous, Solo Polyamory Was One of a Number of Implicit Philosophies Many People Had that They Didn’t Have Names For

Of all the pervasive cultural beliefs surrounding relationships, there’s perhaps none so insidious or unhelpful as the assumption that there’s one right way to do them.

When I started out in my first encounters with the online polyamorous community, solo polyamory and relationship anarchy were implicit philosophies that many people had that explicitly pushed against that monolithic view. But neither RA or solo poly were wide movements at that time and nobody really identified themselves that way or called those ideas that. They just spoke in paragraphs that people these days would probably summarize with, “Oh, that sounds like solo polyamory,” or “Oh, that sounds like relationship anarchy.”

Like many folks, I had started out my polyamorous explorations with fairly traditional notions of how relationships functioned. But as I continued to question one assumption after another, I became an unwitting relationship anarchist, albeit a warm cuddly one. Less a person who is waging a war against labels (they can be helpful for communication). And more a person who believes that the rules are all bullshit and that people should just do what they agree on.

I didn’t realize I could be considered a relationship anarchist until one day many years after the fact when I was talking about my relationship views to a friend, and they interrupted me and summarized, “Oh, so you’re a relationship anarchist.”

I’ve Never Identified as Solo Poly, But I’ve Been a Solo Act

I have never identified as solo poly. Perhaps this is because of where I was in my life when I started to question implicit sociocultural attitudes surrounding relationships like the relationship escalator (or toxic monogamy culture).

At that time I had five partners. I was legally married and had entangled finances with one of them, and I lived with three of my other partners. I was not only doing the primary-style relationship thing, but I was in an active state of co-primacy, knee deep in what could well be considered three primary entanglements.

However, I can see how it could have played out differently if I’d discovered the polyamorous community at a very different time.

As a young woman, most of my friends were people who were coupled up. That one single friend in a sea of couples, I was often on my own.

A lot of times, this was really fun. I had so many adventures. I loved being able to take off for the day, go anywhere I wanted, and not have to leave a note for anyone or face any kind of lecture if I crawled in during the wee hours of the night. There were many times I went on a few dates that didn’t lead to more dates. I mostly had sex with straight-identifying female friends who were closeted. During a dry spell or the occasional “hall pass” situation issued by their boyfriend (yes, one penis policy as well has existed long before the term took off).

And during that incredibly single period, I even had one loving connection that in hindsight felt like my first polyamorous relationship. Although neither of us called it a relationship at the time. We were honest with each other about where we were going, where we’d been. I surely loved them. But we were completely autonomous. Not entangled in the slightest. And I never saw even the hint of a string.

It does make me wonder if I’d discovered polyamory at that point in my life instead of when I did if I would have stayed a solo act. And developed loving connections that were free of traditional entanglements like cohabitation.

Rent Prices Made Entanglement an Attractive Prospect

I will say that rent prices meant that I found I had to live with someone. Early in college, this was a roommate provided by the school. But as we all began to move off campus and people began to pair up two by two, that prospect became untenable. Other single folks lived with their parents. But as I come from a high-functioning dysfunctional family and spent most of my early adolescent years living at other people’s houses, that really wasn’t a great option for me as an adult in my late teens and early 20s.

College had given me a brief respite from latchkey kid existence, but before long, I was again homeless and couch surfing.

But then my friends (all coupled) introduced me to the only other single person they knew, and something curious happened. When Seth came into my life, even though we weren’t exactly compatible in most ways (and both settled quite a bit to date one another, on various issues), it was in some ways a miracle. Seth had a good relationship with his parents, who were people of means and were happy to not only support him financially but thought I was a good kid and allowed me to stay in their guest room so long as I did chores.

I did. Took classes at university part time, worked my job at the dollar store as a cashier, and wrote for the local newspaper for another part-time job. Saved up some money by staying with Seth’s parents and helping them out.

And then I entered and won multiple campus writing contests and had a nice little nest egg. Seth and I moved out, using my winnings as the deposit on an apartment. It was tiny, but I was so happy to have a place of my own (well, kinda, since Seth lived there). Seth and I got jobs as telemarketers in the evening and continued to go to school part time.

It wasn’t easy to get by, even with Seth’s help. Even cheap apartments were expensive on the low wage we earned at entry level jobs. I was normally exhausted in class.

In those days, we didn’t buy anything without discussing it first. A famous argument erupted over an unapproved $5 impulse purchase on ice cream.

When Entanglement Is a Bad Thing

It wasn’t pretty. But I made it through school. I ended up graduating and getting a good job at the hospital working as a transcriptionist. The nice thing about that job was that you didn’t get paid based on how much time you spent doing it, like a lot of other gigs. Instead, you got paid based on the quality and quantity of your output. And because I was excellent at the job, I was paid like a physician’s assistant instead of a receptionist.

For the first time in my life, I could actually easily afford life’s necessities. I was thrilled. I told Seth that he could go back to school for whatever he wanted. And that we now had the means that he didn’t have to work part time while he did it. He could throw himself into whatever he wanted. We’d figure it out.

Seth responded to this offer in a way that threw me completely off guard: He quit his job, enrolled for a part-time college schedule, and proceeded to fail half of the classes he took. Meanwhile, his spending increased to levels that I had never anticipated. He went through money like someone had dared him to (like in Brewster’s Millions, basically, for you Richard Pryor fans).

Suddenly, my lucrative job didn’t really matter. Our financial situation became nearly as bleak as before. That’s the funny thing about life: If you don’t manage your money well, it doesn’t matter how much you have, you’ll always be poor.

Whenever I tried to talk to Seth about the issue, he’d either:

  1. Become mean and defensive.  -OR-
  2. Say whatever he needed to placate me in the moment and then just proceed on doing whatever he wanted to do, like we’d never even spoken.

I tried my hardest to work around him, pulling extra shifts, making more money. I would tell him that our bills cost more than they did. Move money to secret accounts. All in an attempt to stop the financial bleeding. With enough deception, it kind of worked, but it was exhausting and I felt out of control and irritated. It was a constant struggle. And I resented that he put me into that position.

Despite numerous accountability talks and attempts to get therapy, it never got any better. And that, more than anything else, is probably why Seth and I aren’t together anymore. He had gotten into behavioral patterns that threatened our everyday financial survival and was resistant to all efforts I made to manage that in a way that preserved my sanity.

Or, in other words, the benefits of our financial entanglement were entirely one-sided.

I still think it could have been salvageable if Seth had tried to make my life easier to offset the financial stress. If he had pitched in with chores. Provided emotional labor. Or just cut back his spending. Something. (Interesting side note: I was the partner with the higher sex drive and I wasn’t even getting very much sex out of the arrangement.)

Becoming Entangled with the Wrong Person Taught Me Something Important About Autonomy

Together ten years all told, Seth and I opened up our relationship during the last two years after a friend of ours came out as polyamorous. Seth had initially been more excited than I was at the prospect, but after watching our friend for a while through this new lens, I decided to take the leap.

Deeply insecure after a lifetime of constant instability, I had been terrified once we opened our relationship that Seth would fall in love with other people, realize they were a better fit for him than I was, and leave me.

As it turned out, that’s not really how anything played out. While opening up our relationship gave us both new emotional outlets, it wasn’t a one-sided discovery. Over time, we both realized we really weren’t that compatible.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, one night after he started seeing his new girlfriend. “But she has this way of listening to me that makes me feel smart.”

And I, too, was stunned when I started dating people who read every word I wrote. Listened to me carefully. And loved all of it. Instead of being annoyed by the things I liked to talk about.

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Seth taught me a big lesson about relationships: Entanglement isn’t always a good thing. And that becoming entangled with the wrong person wouldn’t lift me up but drag me down.

As I spent months being polyamorous, my autonomy became increasingly more important to me. And it became increasingly more silly to me that I was investing so much into this partnership and that Seth wasn’t pulling his weight in return.

Over time, Seth and I drifted apart and called it quits. We’re divorced now. And are both happier than we ever were together. We chat on occasion. Laugh at the thought we were ever married.

We’re both still polyamorous. But the difference is that these days we’re dating people who make us feel like they’re excited to be with us.

And I’m forever changed by the experience. Whether I’m entangled with someone else or not, my autonomy is of superlative importance to me.

I Started Dating a Solo Polyamorist Right About the Time I Became the Most Jaded with Entanglement

“Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.”

-Esther Perel, Mating in Captivity

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Interestingly, it was during the final stages of my relationship with Seth when I started dating Justin. Justin was partner #5 for me, as I was a hinge in a rather busy and complicated polyamorous web.

And Justin was a solo polyamorist.

Well, kinda. Again, nobody was calling themselves that back then.

Like many people, Justin had set out seeking romantic relationships that followed the relationship escalator pattern. You met someone, started to date exclusively, engaged, moved in together, and eventually married.

Justin had lived with one former partner. Even got engaged to another. But time and time again, Justin was discovering that something was off compatibility-wise. Discovering the same things I had found in my relationship with Seth. That he did care for those partners but that the compatibility was strained. That they weren’t really compatible with each other as entangled life partners. Unlike me, he was self-aware enough to figure that out before marrying them, but the experience was similar emotionally. In some circumstances, Justin was the one to end it. In others, his partner was.

But a series of breakups and starts and stops caused Justin to take an extensive break from dating anyone at all. He went to therapy and talked to his friends about relationships. As many of Justin’s friends were either polyamorous and/or kinky, some of what they said challenged his notions about relationships.

He’d always been interested in non-monogamy and kink, but theory was one thing. Watching it unfold before him with actual people? Well, that was another case altogether.

As he interacted with his new friends, it dawned on him: He hadn’t been able to find everything he was looking for in a partner in one place. But maybe that was the whole problem. Maybe he was asking for too much from one person. Why couldn’t he find one thing with this partner? Another thing with a different partner? And still more with other partners?

Who said he had to live with romantic partners? Why couldn’t he live on his own, establish loving relationships, but maintain his autonomy?

And so he leapt. It was an exciting foray, full of ups and downs. As he recalled to me later, he had a friend at work who often found his love life quite entertaining, if a bit confusing. “Oh, that’s your married girlfriend, right?”

“Well, that’s one of them,” Justin would say. “But no, not her. I’m talking about the other one.”

There Was No Pressure to Ride the Relationship Escalator with Justin

When I started dating Justin (after I met him through one of my partners), I was Married Girlfriend #3. Justin worked full-time and was running a non-profit he’d founded himself. He had his own home that he’d bought by himself with no parental help at an impressively young age, younger than anyone else I hung out with. One that he was fixing up with his impressive DIY skills and viewed as an investment he was eventually planning to flip.

In the early days of my relationship with Justin, Seth and I were in the last gasps of our relationship, in the process of separating. I also was experiencing huge stress from my other cohabitating partners (Seth and I lived with Rob and Michelle, a married couple whom I was also seeing), who had really changed their expectations of me after I had relocated 900 miles to live with them. The last thing I was looking for was more entanglement. Entanglement to me was starting to feel like other people wanting everything out of me and not willing to give much of anything in return.

My time with Justin was refreshingly different. A breath of fresh air. I found that rather than draining me (as my other lovers often did) that he instead restored my energy. I was able to relax around him. He took care of his basic emotional and practical needs just fine. And so I wasn’t always running around putting out fires that he’d set (the way I felt like things were going with my other partners), but instead we were able to just enjoy each other’s company and have fun. We took turns paying for and planning dates.

Often Justin and I just stayed home at his house and did things like make boxed strawberry cake, listen to music, look at each other’s high school yearbooks, and trade stories.

When things reached a fever pitch with Rob and it became an unsafe environment, Justin immediately offered to let Seth and me crash at his house. I accepted gratefully but priced apartments and efficiencies in the area, preparing a long-term living situation. The last thing I wanted to do was impose on him.

But instead a curious thing happened: Justin and I discovered that we were amazing roommates. That our values weren’t in sync just with emotional matters (though they certainly were) but that we thought about money and managing a household in an eerily similar manner.

I ended up staying. Seth lived with us for a bit while we were separating (as I was still financially supporting him), but eventually he got back on his feet enough to move out.

When a Jaded Relationship Anarchist and a Solo Polyamorist Accidentally End Up Married

As of this writing, it’s been 8 years, and I still live in this house. I went on to remarry Justin after Seth and I divorced.  Shocking everyone — but most of all, me.

After everything that had happened with Seth, I was leery of entanglement. Jaded. So of course, I’d meet someone who challenged that belief in such stark terms. Thanks, Universe. Fucking with me as always.

And of course that person I married would be someone who also didn’t think they’d ever get entangled again. A solo polyamorist before the word was a known quantity (in those days, Justin would instead tell you a paragraph or two that basically described solo polyamory).

But yeah. We’re married. Financially entangled. We live together. Hell, we’re business partners. 

I’ve Known Many Other Solo Poly Folks

So that was maybe a weird story to tell. But that’s probably the one I’ve had that most closely interfaces with solo polyamory and its principles of autonomy. Questioning entanglement for entanglement’s sake. The relationship escalator.

I’ve definitely known a lot of other people who are solo poly — many who identify more strongly with the label than Justin ever did. Some who did for a bit and then didn’t later. Some who have the whole time I’ve known them and likely always will.

There’s a definite diversity even within the subculture regarding concerns and styles of relating. But then again, relationships are custom jobs. And I think that’s just the nature of the beast.

I’m Grateful for the Questions that Solo Polyamory Asks, Even If People Tend to Answer Them Differently

Here’s what I think about solo polyamory, bottom line. I’m glad it exists, for the following reasons:

  • People are questioning entanglement for entanglement’s sake.
  • Increased awareness of the relationship escalator makes it a conscious choice instead of a requirement.
  • Autonomy is rad, as is finding ways to be interdependent that are mutually beneficial instead of one-sided.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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