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Was solo polyamory a defensive position for me?

“When do you think you’ll be ready to move in together?” I often describe this as the moment that made me solo polyamorous – without me knowing it even existed. I’d been seeing the person asking this question for less than six months, having recently moved out from living with my spouse. “Usually, I’d want to wait two years,” I responded. “But actually, I don’t know if I want to live with a partner ever again.”

After nine and a half years of cohabitation in a one-bedroom ex-council house in East London, I felt like I was done with living with partners. I was pulling my drawbridges up. I had my canons in place. I was hand-digging a moat around me. I felt I needed a fortress to ensure no one ever so much as looked at combining their vinyl collection with mine again. 

What I was experiencing at that time was my first sense of disharmony with the Relationship Escalator. Up until that point in my adult life, I had ridden it with little thought, going through the motions of what was expected from a ‘grown-up relationship’: monogamy, cohabitation (thrice), marriage (twice), and buying a house together (I came close but had a lucky escape on that one).

It was only a few months later that I stumbled upon the idea of solo polyamory and the work of Amy Gahran. Here were other people who didn’t want to live with their partners. Didn’t want to combine finances. Avoided having to work out how to have other partners over for sleepovers when they shared the same bed. Valued their personal space. Relished in their private time. Yes, I thought. Comrades.

Solo poly for the wrong reason?

Many people choose a solo life from a place of contentment. They’re at ease with this type of setup. Not waiting for a romantic partner to come along and U-Haul with them. Instead, they want life to look pretty much the same when they’re in a relationship as when they’re out of one

My attraction to solo polyamory came from a different place – one that had built-in boundaries. With it, I could draw a line around myself and declare that none shall pass. Kind of like Johnny in Dirty Dancing flirtatiously declaring, “This is my dance space. This is your dance space.” Except with less hip shaking and more steely eyes.

Why did I feel the need to be so rigid about it? Why hold this space for me so fiercely rather than calmly? I’ve spent the past year thinking about this as I felt some of those walls I’d built up from the rubble of my marriage begin to come down. Was solo polyamory something I specifically wanted? Or had it been a useful defensive position for me?

A safe haven for me

When I got married the second time, I agreed to a wedding I didn’t want to have. It cost over £10k, and I had a breakdown two weeks before the ‘big day.’ I wanted to be anywhere but taking part in this event. But as I’d acquiesced to my partner’s wants, things had been planned, people had flown in, and I had to push my needs further down and play my part. 

Much of that time in my life still haunts me emotionally. Mostly because I felt incapable of backing myself. The strong response from my nervous system to those first conversations about a wedding was initially enough for me to say no. No, thank you. Yes, to commitment. Yes, to love. But no to that. And yet, I’d still allowed myself to be coerced into something I clearly did not want.

When that relationship ended years later, I was pretty burnt. But not from my ability to trust other people. It’s that I couldn’t trust myself. I was terrified of having a conversation with a partner where we shared both our wants and needs and came to a mutual agreement. Instead, I felt I needed to shut down any discussion before it could occur. Nail my colours to the mast. 

That’s why solo polyamory was so appealing to me. Without realising it, I was providing a personal sense of safe haven. Time and space for me to learn how to advocate for myself. Prioritise my needs. Say no and have that be welcomed, or feel comfortable disappointing someone I love

A room of one’s own

It took years. Many of them. But people knew how I felt about the Relationship Escalator from the moment I met them. No, I wasn’t down for living together, getting married, making babies, buying a house – but thanks. Those conversations were off the table. I looked for like-minded people to date. I avoided those who felt like a risk. It wasn’t up for discussion.

I travelled a lot, which kept connections short. There wasn’t much opportunity to move beyond the heady rush of NRE because I’d always be moving on after a few months. Instead, I focused on myself. I tried to understand what it meant to be my own partner. I felt my way around the edges of what self-love looked like – something that I continue to feel my way into.

I began to soften ever so slightly when I accepted that I was genderqueer. I lay down the armour that I’d built around myself with the performance of being a conventionally appealing cis woman. Embraced all the vulnerability and embraced myself more wholly. 

Soon after that, I was back home in Sydney, Australia. I briefly fantasised about what it would be like to live there, in those big breezy houses. With the high rent prices, would I feel differently about living with a partner there? If I did, what would be my terms? I would want my own room, but how else would I carve out personal space and time for myself?

The keys are always in your pocket

It was lovely to let my guard down and allow myself to indulge in such thoughts. I saw how I could look at a situation and assess what my needs were. Finally, I felt confident that I knew they had value. Trusted that I could advocate for them and say no to what I didn’t want.

I began to feel more open to conversations with partners and less like I needed to meet them with a firm, pre-determined position. Of course, knowing what you want and don’t want and being transparent about that in a relationship is good. But it’s also OK to have areas where you feel more fluid and are open to deciding on a case-by-case basis. 

From this openness, I understood that my position on solo polyamory was different now. That I’d be happy if I spent the rest of my life without living with a partner again. Building a home of love, support and care with friends. But I also knew that I was open to other options, too. That how I lived didn’t require a blueprint. 

Recently, I was able to experience the outcome of all this work. It was the fifth anniversary of the end of my marriage. The same week, a conversation with a partner revealed that we wanted different things from a relationship. So, instead of accepting less to hold onto that person, as I would have done in the past, I said no. Thanks, but no. This isn’t for me anymore. And I did my best to be firm and clear on this. How did it feel? Quite odd. Like I was someone else but also me. A new sensation. One that felt strangely exhilarating even in such sad circumstances.

So, here I am. Still a little shaky, but finally feeling confident enough to stand up for myself. Am I still solo polyamorous? In practice, yes, but that relationship style is also about intention. Both the way you currently approach relationships and how you plan to continue doing so in the future. 

These days, I don’t have a set idea about what I want from my relationships regarding cohabitation, finances, etc. It really depends on the individual partner. I’m happy to discuss the escalator now, even if I never ride it again, which is a considerable change. I do know that I don’t need solo polyamory as a tool anymore to help myself have boundaries. 

In Elliot Page’s beautiful memoir from last year, Pageboy, he reflects on a piece of advice Drew Barrymore gave him when he was struggling to understand his autonomy. “The keys are always in your pocket,” she advised. It’s something that has stuck with me over the past couple of months as well. There’s no need to shut conversations down anymore because I can say yes to what I want and no to what I don’t. I finally get that the choice was and is always mine to make.

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A lifestyle blog for everyone who questions the norm. From polyamorous relationships and personal growth to being genderqueer, Minka Guides helps you live a fabulous life with intentionality.

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