Audio Post: What Does Respect Mean in Polyamory?

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Transcript (subheadings added to make reading at least a little easier)


Hey folks, this is Jessica and we’re trying something new this week.

I’ve been thinking for a while about adding a podcast or vlog as a community goal on the PolyonPurpose Patreon campaign. And since this week I’m having a bit of trouble putting my words on paper, I thought I’d give a try doing an audio blog and seeing what people think and how well it works.

Please bear with me on the sound quality. If I do add a vlog or podcast to the Patreon campaign as a community goal, I’m obviously going to need to invest in some new sound equipment.

So, this week we’re going to be talking about respect and specifically how we define respect. I’d been planning on going into kitchen table polyamory this week and how the etiquette around that can work. But I realized there is something I’ve been putting off. When I started this series on polyamory and etiquette, I said that as two of the core values of polyamory.

Defining Respect

Now, something I didn’t think about at the time is the many different ways respect can be defined. And that came up a couple weeks ago in my post on “disrespecting the primary.” Which is an idea that floats around the poly community, that for a metamour were to do something– or a secondary partner were to do something with their part– with the mutual partner it’d be disrespecting the primary partner. And what I mentioned in that post is the saying—and I really need to track down who said it first—is the saying that respect can mean “respect me as a person” or respect can mean “respect my authority.” And so when people say “I will respect you if you will respect me,” what they often are meaning is “I will respect you as a person if you will respect me as an authority”. And it seems to me that 9 times out of 10, if not more often, when poly folks talk about “disrespecting the primary” this is the kind of thing they are talking about, that the primary is being disrespected as an authority.

So this got me thinking about there’s, you know, obviously different ways of looking at respect, different ways of defining it. So when we are talking about respect as one of the bases of etiquette in poly relationships, what are we talking about? What does respect me to us in polyamory, when we are talking about respect not just our partners, but our partner’s partners, and our partner’s and all the other people in our lives because of our connection with our poly partners.

Now if you practice parallel polyamory you only really need to worry about respect in terms of you and your poly partners*. And that in and of itself is a big thing. If you have a communal approach, if you practice kitchen table poly or group poly or a bunch of other possible setups, respect also comes into not just you with your partners but you with a bunch of other people who you interact with because of your partners.

So that’s kind of where we are starting from today.

Now, you look at traditional definitions of respect, they are all talking about giving deference to someone, or esteeming someone, basically tying in with idea that respect is about respecting someone’s authority, respecting someone’s knowledge, respecting someone as a person to be looked up to in some manner or form.

But words evolve, and ideas evolve. And at least within Western culture, especially American culture, respect became something that you were expected to give to people as a default. And when that happened it kind of lost its meaning of deference. Because you aren’t expected to give someone deference as a default. What you are expected to do as a default is treat people with common decency and acknowledgment of their rights and existence. And that’s where “respect me as a person” comes in. Respect my humanity, respect that, you know I am a person. And being a person means there are certain things I get automatically.

Respect My Humanity

What do I get automatically as a person? I get the right to self-determination. I get the right to decide what I will do with my life, what-what actions I will take and what choices I make. I can give this right up. People can take this right away from me, as happens in dictatorships, in abusive relationships, in all kinds of situations. But at base, this is my right as a person.

Along with self-determination comes the right to set boundaries and the right to agency, to act within my environment. There’s other rights that come with being a person, the human rights people talk about. Now, there’s an argument that humans have a right to clean water. That really doesn’t come into play in interpersonal relationships, that’s a geopolitical issue. [Realizing as I transcribe—this CAN be an interpersonal issue is a specific individual is deliberately taking or fouling your water.] In interpersonal relationships, you know I have the right not to be harmed. I have the right to defend myself again harm. I have the right to interact with you or not interact with you as I choose, you do not have the right to force yourself on me. That would be a violation of my self-determination.

And this is what we are talking about when we talk about respect and polyamory. We are talking about all of us, in our relationships, in our lives, have these rights to self-determination, to set boundaries, to excerpt agency, to decide what we will and won’t do and who we will and won’t do it with.

As pat of my self-determination, I can determine I want to be in the closet about polyamory. I don’t want people to know I’m practicing this love style. If I make that decision, and you out me, you are disrespecting my right to self-determination, you are disrespecting me as a person who gets to decide who I will live my life.

And this applies in a lot of other ways. But—I think it’s an important distinction to make, that it’s really not—respect has so many definitions, and this is the one we are talking about in polyamory. We are not talking about respecting your boss, respecting your teaching, respecting authority. We are not talking about respecting in any way of being looking up to someone. We are talking about what has come, in American society at least, to be the bare default of “you are another person, and as another person I respect you and I respect your right to live your life as you choose.”

Respect and Common Decency

Now another thing that can go into this, and it’s debatable but my personal opinion, I believe respecting a person also comes with treating them with common decency. Y’know if I’m gonna cut you off in line at the supermarket, I’m disrespecting you, in my opinion. This is debatable. It doesn’t fall within self-determination, it doesn’t fall within boundaries and agency so much. But it is breaking the social contract. And if I break the social contract to your detriment, that to me is disrespect because I am denying you something that society agrees is your right. Even if it’s just the right to be ahead of me in line at the local Kroger.

If I’m calling you names, if I’m insulting you, if I’m in any way treating you in ways that don’t line up with our social contract of “this is the way people treat each other in society” that’s disrespect. Now of course society various. How people treat each other as schoolmates in a classroom is different from how people treat each other as fans at a football field, is different from how people treat each other bumping into each other at the store, is different from how people treat each other online. And that isn’t even getting into issues of culture and subcultures and what is part of the social contract of the way we interact for Jews at a synagogue is different from mainstream white people in Time Square is different from African American’s down south, is—it all interacts in different ways.

Accidental Disrespect

So accidental disrespect can happen. If…ya know, I’m pretty open about being Jewish and keeping kosher. It’s, to me, disrespectful to me to show up at my house, knowing hat I’m Jewish and keeping kosher, with pork that you’re planning on cooking for dinner. But there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what keeping kosher is. If you don’t realize that I keep a kosher home, that if you bring pork into my home I’m gonna spend an hour scrubbing my kitchen down because that’s what my religion asks of me, if you don’t know this and you bring pork over, that’s arguably disrespectful to me but you didn’t know it. It’s an accidental disrespect. it’s violating my rights in several ways because you are violating my right to set boundaries on my home and decide how I will live in my home. But you don’t know this. It’s an accident, accidents happen.

So respect isn’t something that can be carved in stone “THIS is being respectful, THIS isn’t.” Respect is an individual thing and it changes with everyone. What is respectful to me will be disrespectful to my partner will be disrespectful to the person down the street, might be respectful to you. Might be something that you’re “Eh, that’s not about respect of disrespect, that’s just, you know, a quirk.”

Where Does That Leave Us?

And that’s all something that goes into how we handle etiquette within the poly community and within poly relationships. Taking the time to learn about what is respectful and disrespectful to other people. In order to be respectful, in order to give people respect as the basis for our approach to etiquette, we need to know what they view as respectful and disrespectful. That goes back to honesty, goes back to community, goes back to just knowing each other as the basis for a relationship.

So that’s where I’m coming from when I say that respect is one of the foundations of etiquette in polyamory.

Um, ya know, comments are open below, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you see as being the foundations of etiquette in polyamory? What do you think respect means? How does respect for your in your relationships? I’d love to hear from you and if you’re interested in getting more audio posts like this, in my getting a vlog or podcast going, please check out the patreon page, link is down below.

Take care all.

*This was a silly thing for me to say. It is totally possible to be disrespectful to people you never meet or interact directly with.

Metamours and “Disrespecting the Primary”

We’re taking a tangent away from etiquette this week. I got a response to last week’s post that deserves some attention.

A person on Twitter asked me if they were wrong to not want to meet their metamour. I told them they need to do what is right for them, but I think meeting their metamour is a good idea—if only because meeting them standing over their spouse’s hospital bed would be worse. This person replied their metamour would never show up at the hospital if their partner was hurt. That would be disrespectful to the primary. After I picked my jaw up off the floor, I said that we have very different definitions of “respect.” But again, they need to do what is right for them.

Why did I need to pick my jaw up off the floor? Because the idea that your metamour showing up at the hospital bedside is disrespectful to you is actually you being crazy disrespectful to both your metamour and your partner. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

Someone, and for the life of me I can’t remember who, said that there are two kinds of respect.
“You will respect me” can mean “You will treat me as an authority/superior/having power over you.”
“You will respect me” can mean “You will treat me like a human being (with rights, agency, and a reasonable expectation of common decency).”

Which is why “I will respect you if you respect me” can be so fucked up. For many people, it means “I will treat you like a human being if you treat me like an authority.”

If I need to explain why this a problem in relationships, you are reading the wrong blog.

So, let’s break down how showing up at a loved one’s hospital bed can be “disrespecting the primary.”

If your husband (my lover) is in the hospital and I visit them, am I denying you the common courtesy and decency I offer all human beings? No.
Am I infringing on your rights as a human being? No.
Am I taking away your agency and right to make decisions regarding you life and your body? No.
Am I denying your feelings, attacking you for reasons other than self-defense, or doing anything that will harm you? No.

So that definition of respect doesn’t apply. A metamour visiting their partner in the hospital bed is NOT disrespectful to the primary in terms of treating the primary like a fellow human being with rights, agency, and a reasonable expectation of common decency.

If I show up at your husband’s (my lover’s) bedside, am I somehow undermining your authority in some way? If you think you are the only one with a right to a “real” relationship with your husband and everyone else gets the scraps you allow them, then yes I am undermining your authority. I am flouting your “right” as his spouse to be the only one offering him solace, support, and help in his recovery.
Remember that last sentence, we will come back to it.

I think we’ve established that “disrespecting the primary” isn’t about harming the primary or treating them badly, and is about the primary enforcing their authority. Personally, if my partner ends up in the hospital (again) I’m gonna have better things to do than defend my relationship with him. Like, I don’t know, making sure he survives so we can still have a relationship? Making sure the kids are cared for and the rent is paid so he has a home and family to come back to? Oh, I know, dealing with the hospital bureaucracy and medical bullshit so he can focus on recovering and not stress about how we’re going to pay a 5 figure hospital bill? Yeah, I think those will require a bit more of my attention than defending my status as his one and only primary partner.

Now, let’s look at how barring your metamour from you partner’s hospital bed might be disrespectful to your metamour and your partner.
Your spouse (my lover) ends up in the hospital. It is understood that I am not supposed to show up because it would be disrespectful to you.
Are you denying me common courtesy and decency? Yes, you are denying me the chance to be with someone I care about when I am worried about their well being.
Are you infringing on my rights as a human being? Yes, you are restricting my freedom of movement in a public place.
Are you taking away my agency and right to make decisions regarding my life and my body? Um, yeah. Yeah, you really are. Taking away my agency is the whole point of this little “understanding.”
Are you denying my feelings, attacking me for reasons other than self-defense, or doing anything that will harm me? Yes, you are denying my grief and fear and/or demanding I suppress them in your favor. You are potentially causing me mental and emotional harm. (Speaking from experience here. I was not allowed to see my grandfather before he died because it would be “too traumatic.” Yeah, um. Not being able to see him to say goodbye was a fuck ton worse.)
So yes, saying that your metamour would be “disrespecting the primary” by visiting your mutual partner in the hospital is disrespectful to your metamour. You are not treating them like a fellow human being with rights, agency, and the reasonable expectation of common courtesy and decency.

Now let’s look at your partner. Cause this is where it really gets fucked up.
Are you denying your spouse common courtesy and decency? Yes, you are denying them access to people they care about and dictating who they can and can’t turn to for support.
Are you infringing on your spouse’s rights as a human being? Debatable—you aren’t dictating to your spouse or denying them anything directly. But you are infringing on their right to socialize with, spend time with, and ask for help from whoever they wish.
Are you taking away your spouse’s agency and right to make decisions regarding their life and their body? Um, yeah. Yeah, you really are. You are not allowing them to make decisions about their recovery and how they will manage the emotional and mental stress of their injury/illness.
Are you denying your spouse’s feelings, attacking them for reasons other than self-defense, or doing anything that will harm them? Yes. You are denying them access to resources (your metamour’s time, energy and attention) that can aid in their recovery. You are insisting that during one of the most stressful and difficult times of their life they not get help from someone they love.

In short, if you are more worried about “disrespect to the primary” then in doing everything and anything to help your spouse recover, which may mean including your metamour in their recovery, you are saying that protecting your place in their life is more important than their health and well-being. Remember that sentence we said we’d come back to? By insisting that you are the only one who can offer your spouse support in their recovery, you are denying your spouse support that will make their recovery easier. Think about that, a lot.

Now, that may be the kind of relationship that everyone in your polycule wants. In which case, do what makes you happy.

But be honest with yourself about what you’re doing and why. It’s not about “disrespect”. It’s about defending your primacy, no matter what the cost.

P.S. The hospital bed is an extreme example, but the same logic applies every time someone says a metamour or their partner shouldn’t do something because it would be “disrespecting the primary.”

*If you are in the hospital and do not want one of your partners to visit you, for any reason, that is your right. You saying “I don’t want you to see me in the hospital” is completely different from saying about your partner, “You can’t come see them in the hospital because it would be disrespectful to me.”