Polyhacking

This is a post about ap­plied lu­minos­ity in ac­tion: how I hacked my­self to be­come polyamorous over (ad­mit­tedly weak) nat­u­ral monog­a­mous in­cli­na­tions. It is a case his­tory about me and, given the spe­cific topic, my love life, which means gooey self-dis­clo­sure ahoy. As with the last time I did that, skip the post if it’s not a thing you de­sire to read about. Named part­ners of mine have given per­mis­sion to be named.

1. In Which Mo­ti­va­tion is Acquired

When one is monog­a­mous, one can only date monog­a­mous peo­ple. When one is poly, one can only date poly peo­ple.1 There­fore, if one should find one­self with one’s top ro­man­tic pri­or­ity be­ing to se­cure a re­la­tion­ship with a spe­cific in­di­vi­d­ual, it is only prac­ti­cal to adapt to the style of said in­di­vi­d­ual, pre­sum­ing that’s some­thing one can do. I found my­self in such a po­si­tion when MBlume, then my ex, asked me from three time zones away if I might want to get back to­gether. Since the breakup he had be­come polyamorous and had a differ­ent girlfriend, who her­self jug­gled mul­ti­ple part­ners; I’d moved, twice, and on the way dated a hand­ful of peo­ple to no satis­fac­tory click­ing/​spark­ing/​other sound effects as­so­ci­ated with suc­cess­ful ro­mances. So the idea was ap­peal­ing, if only I could get around the an­noy­ing fact that I was not, at that time, wired to be poly.

Every­thing went ac­cord­ing to plan: I can now com­fortably de­scribe my­self and the pri­mary re­la­tion­ship I have with MBlume as poly. <brag­ging>Since mov­ing back to the Bay Area I’ve been out with four other peo­ple too, one of whom he’s also see­ing; I’ve been in my pri­mary’s pres­ence while he kissed one girl, and when he asked an­other for her phone num­ber; I’ve gos­siped with a sec­ondary about other per­sons of ro­man­tic in­ter­est and ac­cepted his offer to hint to a guy I like that this is the case; I hit on some­one at a party right in front of my pri­mary. I haven’t suffered a hic­cup of drama or a twinge of jeal­ousy to speak of and all ev­i­dence (in­clud­ing ver­bal con­fir­ma­tion) in­di­cates that I’ve been man­ag­ing my pri­mary’s feel­ings satis­fac­to­rily too.</​brag­ging> Does this sort of thing ap­peal to you? Cross your fingers and hope your brain works enough like mine that you can swipe my pro­ce­dure.

2. In Which I Vivi­sect a Spec­i­men of Monogamy

It’s eas­ier to get sev­eral small things out of the way, or route around them, than to defeat one large thing em­bed­ded in sev­eral places. Time to ask my­self what I wanted. A no­table virtue of polyamory is that it’s ex­tremely cus­tomiz­able. (Monogamy could be too, in the­ory, but comes with a strong cul­tural tem­plate that makes it un­com­fortably non-de­fault to im­ple­ment and main­tain non­stan­dard pa­ram­e­ters.) If I could take apart what I liked about monogamy, there seemed a good chance that I could get some of those desider­ata in an open re­la­tion­ship too (by ask­ing my co­op­er­a­tive would-be pri­mary). The re­main­ing items—the ones that were ac­tu­ally stand­ing be­tween me and polyamory, not just my cached stereo­type thereof—would be a more man­age­able hack­ing tar­get. I de­ter­mined that I could, post-hack, keep and pur­sue the fol­low­ing de­sires:

  • I want to be some­one’s top ro­man­tic pri­or­ity, ideally sym­met­ri­cally. [This is satis­fied by me and MBlume hav­ing an ex­plic­itly pri­mary re­la­tion­ship in­stead of each hav­ing a bunch of un­differ­en­ti­ated ones.]

  • I even­tu­ally want to get mar­ried. (This one isn’t in the works as of this time, but isn’t pre­cluded by any­thing I’m do­ing now. Open mar­riages are a thing.) Re­lat­edly, I want to pro­duce spawn within wed­lock, and to have re­pro­duc­tive ex­clu­sivity (i.e. no gen­er­at­ing half-siblings for said spawn on ei­ther side of the fam­ily). [MBlume was fine with this mat­ter­ing to me.]

  • I want to be able to se­cure at­ten­tion on de­mand—even though I didn’t an­ti­ci­pate need­ing this op­tion rou­tinely. My model of my­self in­di­cated that I would feel more com­fortable with my pri­mary go­ing off with other girls if I knew that I was en­ti­tled to keep him home, for sta­tus- and se­cu­rity-re­lated rea­sons. Ac­tu­ally re­quiring this of him in prac­tice is rare. [We in­vented the term “pair­bond­ing” to re­fer to des­ig­nated pe­ri­ods of time when we are not to be dis­tracted from one an­other.]

  • I want to be suit­ably para­noid about STIs. [We worked out ac­cept­able stan­dards for this well in ad­vance.]

Th­ese things weren’t the sole com­po­nents of my monog­a­mous in­cli­na­tions, but what was left was a puny lit­tle thing made of ugh fields and aes­thetic tastes and the least por­tions of the above. (For ex­am­ple, the first bul­let point, be­ing some­one’s top ro­man­tic pri­or­ity, is 95% of the whole want­ing to be some­one’s ex­clu­sive ro­man­tic pri­or­ity. That last 5% is not that huge.)

The vivi­sec­tion pro­cess also re­vealed that a lot of my monog­a­mous in­cli­na­tions were com­posed of the bare fact that monogamy had always been the speci­fied ar­range­ment. Be­ing pre­sumed by the agreed-upon bound­aries of my re­la­tion­ships to be monog­a­mous meant that if ei­ther party went off and was non-monog­a­mous, this was Break­ing A Rule. My brain does not like it when peo­ple (in­clud­ing me) Break Rules2 or try to change them too close to the time of the pro­posed would-be ex­cep­tion, gen­er­ally speak­ing, but doesn’t ob­ject to rules be­ing differ­ent in differ­ent con­texts. If I en­tered a re­la­tion­ship where, from the get-go, poly was how it was sup­posed to work, this en­tire struc­ture would be silent on the sub­ject of monogamy. Pre-vivi­sec­tion I would have con­sid­ered it more closely em­bed­ded than that.

3. In Which I Use My Imagination

Hu­mans re­spond to in­cen­tives. We do this even when it comes to ma­jor de­ci­sions that should be sig­nifi­cant enough in them­selves to swamp said in­cen­tives. En­cod­ing the switch to poly as a grand, dra­matic sac­ri­fice I was prepar­ing to make for cin­e­matic rea­sons (ad­vance the plot, make soulful faces at the cam­era, es­tab­lish my char­ac­ter to the rapt au­di­ence as some sort of long-suffer­ing al­tru­ist giv­ing up a Part Of Who I Am for True Love) was ad­mit­tedly ap­peal­ing. But it wasn’t ap­peal­ing to the bits of my brain that were do­ing the heavy lift­ing, just to the part that gen­er­ates fic­tion and ap­plies the tem­plates to real life when­ever pos­si­ble. Bet­ter to find ways to cater to the self­ish, prac­ti­cal crowd in my in­ter­nal com­mit­tee.

Polyamory has perks.

So I imag­ined a model of my­self with one mod­ifi­ca­tion: the de­bris of my monog­a­mous in­cli­na­tions that were still left af­ter I’d pared away the non-in­tru­sive parts were not pre­sent in this model. Imag­i­nary Model Ali­corn was already finished with her hack and com­fortable with plug­ging into a poly net­work. Con­tem­plat­ing how she went about her life, I noted the fol­low­ing:

  • She got to date MBlume. (This one was im­por­tant.)

  • When I con­sid­ered who else be­sides MBlume I might want to date if I lived in the rele­vant area and was poly, I found that I had a list. In sev­eral cases, the peo­ple on the list were folks I couldn’t date if they were go­ing to be 100% of my sig­nifi­cant oth­ers or if I was go­ing to be 100% of theirs—some had the wrong ga­metes or other fea­tures for hy­po­thet­i­cal fu­ture spawn-pro­duc­tion, some were already thor­oughly poly and weren’t about to aban­don that (or, where ap­pli­ca­ble, other part­ner(s)) for me, some were in­com­pletely satis­fac­tory in other ways that I’d find frus­trat­ing if they were my sole part­ner but could over­look if they were sup­ple­mented ap­pro­pri­ately. Imag­i­nary Model Ali­corn could date these peo­ple and wouldn’t have to rely on hy­po­thet­i­cals to learn what it would be like.

  • She ac­quired a cer­tain level of sta­tus (re­spect for her mind-hack­ing skills and the ap­proval that comes with hav­ing an ap­proved-of “sen­si­ble” ro­man­tic ori­en­ta­tion) within a rele­vant sub­cul­ture. She got to write this post to claim said sta­tus pub­li­cly, and ac­cu­mu­late deli­cious karma. And she got to make this meta bul­let point.

  • She had a way to live com­fortably in the Bay Area within arm’s reach of lots of her friends.

  • She had a non-de­struc­tive out­let for her ap­petite for so­cial drama3.

  • She had first­hand in­for­ma­tion about both ways to or­ches­trate her love life, and even if she wanted to go back to monogamy even­tu­ally for some rea­son, she’d be mak­ing an in­formed de­ci­sion.

  • She had to check fewer im­pulses and re­strain fewer urges to re­mark on the at­tributes of peo­ple around her, be­cause the con­se­quences for be­ing in­ter­preted in­cor­rectly (or cor­rectly) as ex­press­ing ro­man­tic or sex­ual in­ter­est in ar­bi­trary peo­ple weren’t as big a deal.

So I spent some time think­ing about Imag­i­nary Model Ali­corn. When her life started seem­ing like a pleas­ant fan­tasy, in­stead of a far-out al­ter­nate uni­verse, that was progress; when it sounded like a vi­able plan for the near fu­ture, in­stead of an im­plau­si­ble flight of fancy, that was progress too.

4. In Which I Put Some Brain­bits in Mothballs

At this point my in­ter­est in be­ing poly was thor­oughly mo­ti­vated and I already had a com­fortably bro­ken-in new self-model to move into—if and when I man­aged the hack. It wasn’t done. I still had to get rid of:

  • My aes­thetic keen­ing for a perfect, pretty, self-con­tained monog­a­mous setup4.

  • Re­sent­ment that I ought to have to self-mod­ify to get some things I wanted, in­stead of the uni­verse be­ing set up so I could com­fortably re­tain my fac­tory set­tings.

  • The differ­ence be­tween “top pri­or­ity” and “ex­clu­sive pri­or­ity”.

  • My im­pulse to re­tain the right to claim vic­tim sta­tus if cer­tain things went wrong (e.g. if I were faith­ful in a sup­pos­edly monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ship, and then I wound up with an STI be­cause my SO slept with some­one else, I would be the wronged party and could trem­ble my lip at my faith­less part­ner and de­mand the sym­pa­thy of my friends, in­stead of be­ing a ca­su­alty of an ac­ci­dent yielded by al­low­able be­hav­iors and en­ti­tled to noth­ing but a sigh of re­gret).

  • Anx­iety about the pos­si­bil­ity that my pri­mary would be stolen away by some more ap­peal­ing sec­ondary.

  • Loss aver­sion, which wanted to re­strain me from giv­ing up the po­ten­tial to date peo­ple who would con­sider ever hav­ing been poly a dealbreaker. (Note: I im­ple­mented what I be­lieve to be a re­versible hack, so I didn’t have to worry about not be­ing able to en­ter a monog­a­mous re­la­tion­ship if that ever seemed called for).

Re­spec­tively, here’s what I did to get these brain­bits to stop strug­gling long enough that I could box them up and put them into deep stor­age (for­give the metaphors in which I ap­pear to make faces at my­self. I did not ac­tu­ally need a mir­ror for any of this; those bits are sym­bols for the at­ti­tudes as­so­ci­ated with the men­tal ac­tions):

  • Re­place­ment. Cul­ti­vated a new aes­thetic ac­cord­ing to which polyamory was the “pret­tier” style. (Each aes­thetic has the weak­ness of work­ing pri­mar­ily when the peo­ple around me are all do­ing the same thing, and I don’t know how to fix that yet; but I was go­ing to move into an area and sub­cul­ture with lots of poly peo­ple any­way.)

  • Rol­led my eyes at my­self and listed prior self-mod­ifi­ca­tions I’d un­der­taken, then ask­ing if those goals were less im­por­tant to me than get­ting the benefits of be­ing poly or if I re­gret­ted those prior hacks.

  • Raised an eye­brow at my­self and asked what, ex­actly, was the added value of ex­clu­sivity. Ques­tion dis­solved on suffi­ciently skep­ti­cal in­spec­tion.

  • Pointed out that vic­tim sta­tus is not ac­tu­ally par­tic­u­larly valuable. I have ac­quired a bet­ter cal­iber of friends than I had when this brain­bit ap­pears to have crys­tal­lized, and could rea­son­ably ex­pect sym­pa­thy from most of them whether or not I was tech­ni­cally the vic­tim of some­one else’s wrong­do­ing. And I can trem­ble my lip as much as I want, for all the good that will do.

  • Weighed the bad­ness of los­ing an SO to some­one vs. just plain los­ing one due to dis­satis­fac­tion; de­ter­mined differ­ence to be in­signifi­cant, at least with­out more de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about the “some­one” which I could not gen­er­ate ex hy­poth­esi. Noted that I would hardly im­prove my odds of re­tain­ing an SO by de­mand­ing a re­la­tion­ship style dis­preferred by said SO. And the rele­vant in­di­vi­d­ual had in­di­cated his prefer­ence to be polyamory.

  • “Who ex­actly are these peo­ple? Do I know any of them? Not any who I’d want to date in any rec­og­niz­able sce­nario. Okay then, the class as a whole is to be counted a less valuable op­por­tu­nity than the class of poly peo­ple (which no­tably in­cludes MBlume).”

5. In Which Every­thing Goes Ac­cord­ing To Plan And I Am Re­peat­edly Com­mended For Hav­ing Mag­i­cal Powers

Field-test­ing has con­firmed that I’m do­ing some­thing right: I’m happy and com­fortable. (Also, spon­ta­neously all kinds of pop­u­lar. If I’d known I could get this many peo­ple in­ter­ested by hack­ing poly I might have done it sooner.) I would re­verse the hack if my pri­mary de­cided he wanted to be monog­a­mous with me, but oth­er­wise don’t see a likely rea­son to want to.

    1I’m count­ing will­ing­ness that one’s sole part­ner have other part­ners (e.g. be­ing an arm of a V) to be a low-key fla­vor of be­ing poly one­self, not a va­ri­ety of tol­er­ant monogamy. I think this is the more rea­son­able way to di­vide things up given a two-way di­vi­sion, but if you feel that I mischar­ac­ter­ize the highly sim­plified tax­on­omy, do tell.

    2The de­tails of what my brain con­sid­ers to be Rules and how it protests when they are bro­ken or self-serv­ingly al­tered are mildly in­ter­est­ing but ir­rele­vant to this post.

    3I don’t think I’d de­scribe my­self as en­joy­ing drama, but it’s in­ter­est­ing and I’m drawn to it, and if I don’t keep track of this care­fully enough I go around start­ing it with­out re­al­iz­ing what I’m do­ing un­til too late. Gen­er­at­ing ac­tual drama is a good way to hurt peo­ple, so I was pleas­antly sur­prised to dis­cover that the same ap­petite ap­pears to be in­dulged by work­ing out the in­tri­ca­cies of re­la­tion­ship pa­ram­e­ters, and keep­ing track of the struc­ture of a poly­cule in which I am an atom, even if no drama per se ex­ists.

    4If the com­ments I linked when I first men­tioned this aes­thetic don’t ad­e­quately ex­plain it to you, per­haps listen to the song “Some­where That’s Green” from Lit­tle Shop of Hor­rors. The ex­act de­tails in the lyrics thereof are not what I ever had in mind (it’s de­signed to high­light and poke fun at the singing char­ac­ter’s ex­tremely mod­est am­bi­tions) but the emo­tional con­text—minus the back­story where the char­ac­ter cur­rently has an abu­sive boyfriend—is just right.