When there aren’t any models for how you want to move through the world, it’s harder to move through the world. There’s no one right way to do ethical non-monogamy, just as there’s no one right way to do ethical monogamy, and no way is better or worse than any other, just better or worse for those involved. Poly Pocket looks at all the ways queer people do polyamory: what it looks like, how we think about it, how it functions (or doesn’t), how it feels, because when you don’t have models you have to create your own.
Ginger is a 40-year-old white femme cis woman queer polyamorous partnered and living in Oakland. She is in a long-term relationship (20 years!) and works in social justice.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Carolyn: Wow 20 years!
Ginger: Yeah, it still boggles my mind it’s been that long.
Carolyn: Did you discover polyamory independently, or together?
Ginger: I think together, but we both brought our own understandings to the table. we had always from the very early days when we didn’t even admit we we were dating that we wouldn’t “own” the other.
Carolyn: What were your early discussions/negotiations around it like?
Ginger: Mostly about not ever wanting to be married and that our bodies were our own — that was somewhat centered around also agreeing we never wanted kids — but mostly we were independent people who happen to really like each other and wanted to spend ridiculous amounts of time together.
When I met my partner, Atlee, I wasn’t out to myself yet. He always had a hunch though.
I grew up in a super conservative evangelical culture. I had no role models for what gay culture was and if I had some insight it was always in context of sin and/or wrongness. Looking back I can definitely see how my queerness was deeply internalized. For example, I never dated anyone in high school. No one interested me, but that was because none of the boys were interesting to me. I couldn’t even fathom an alternative. Then college! it opened up new ways of thinking and seeing other relationships that I never had access to. I had to leave South Dakota to find myself.
In South Dakota it was very heteronormative. It was always monogamous. In Ohio, around 1996 or 1997 for the last half of my undergrad, I saw and became friends with openly queer people and was in a really active art/music community. That was the first time I had seen and heard of the term polyamory.
“Polyamory appealed to me because it felt much more honest and ethical. It was more realistic in that I know intrinsically that we can love more than one person.”
Carolyn: What about polyamory appealed to you? And when did you begin to explore it in your own life?
Ginger: Polyamory appealed to me because it felt much more honest and ethical. It was more realistic in that I know intrinsically that we can love more than one person. I think this is where being a twin comes into play in some deep level — I think about how I had to from a very early age learn how to have more than one relationship with someone. And how I had to break away at times to be independent (non monogamous on broadly defined in this case) and find my own sense of self. Being a twin was also how I knew intrinsically that I had the capacity to deeply love more than one person.
I began to test out monogamous boundaries in Ohio but nothing serious until I moved to Seattle. In Seattle, it moved from theory to practice. I knew I wanted to be in a long-term relationship with Atlee since I love him so deeply but also had real desires to explore my queerness in more open and honest ways. Being poly allows that to happen in a whole self way that I had been desperately seeking.
Carolyn: What’s your relationship structure now?
Ginger: I think it’s much more aligned with the “relationship anarchy” concept of not having a hierarchy to relationships. I have lovers and so does he. Having said that, our 20-year relationship is intimidating for others new to the scene. That’s been an interesting piece of the puzzle that can’t be ignored and I don’t want it be denied (lessons learned on that!).
There is a real magic and power to NRE (new relationship energy) which can bring in dynamics in our established relationship if I’m not careful AND I am very aware that there is a power imbalance for the new person to navigate as well.
An example in the past that I have learned from is that I would essentially spend weekends with the other person. That burned me out because I wasn’t spending enough time on my own shit and also left Atlee with the more un-fun work week me. It wasn’t as integrated as I try to practice now.
“I have a relationship to myself first. If that relationship isn’t solid and healthy I’m not good with anyone.”
Carolyn: What other things have you discovered like that?
Ginger: I think the number one thing that I’ve taken away from all the good and not-so-good relationships is that I have a relationship to myself first. If that relationship isn’t solid and healthy I’m not good with anyone. Atlee can absorb more of that since we’ve simply had more experiences together, but others not so much.
Really being honest about what I can give and how much I realistically can spend in a way that is present and curious with another person is another lesson. I like to get deep with people. that takes effort and commitment.
Carolyn: So logistically, how do you balance your relationship with yourself and NRE and your relationship with Atlee?
Ginger: These days it’s all about intention. I’m slower to introduce another partner to Atlee than in the past. I’m quicker to recognize the multiple ways in which that beautiful heart-pounding NRE passion can influence decisions.
Carolyn: How does your relationship/s shift when you get involved with someone new?
Ginger: There’s a practical shift around time spent with someone. I am less quick to spend a weekend with someone because of a hard learned lesson and really honest with the person that this is my situation. I do my best to integrate them into my whole life — even the boring work stuff or that they have to like my cat. In that sense, it’s more poly-oriented towards wanting to know and love/like a person than simply having a physically intimate relationship. Those are nice but I’ve come to the fact that a one dimensional relationship (for me) isn’t healthy.
Carolyn: It’s neat to learn that kind of thing about yourself.
Ginger: It is. I feel much like a phoenix in that regard. Out of the ashes I arose.
Carolyn: Uh oh was there a specific instance or lesson you had to learn to get there?
Ginger: Mostly that if I’m not taking care of myself in any relationship, it just won’t work. to my point about burn out. For a while, I was essentially on a sprint pace of over two years with someone consistently seven days a week. Atlee and over that two-year period with two different people. I wasn’t deep down happy with anyone, not even myself.
I own a lot of that but some partners had more pressure about my time so I was essentially trying to please everyone. Not the best boundaries,
Carolyn: How did you come back from that?
Ginger: I went on a sabbatical from everyone, minus Atlee. I did have one other now on the long-term relationship but it’s not very frequent so essentially I went underground and monogamous to myself on an arbitrary six-month timeline. I went on a date almost to the full six months. I also felt ready in the sense that I felt mostly healed from the last relationship I had been in. I was also getting nervous that I was getting rusty and too staying-at-home in a cabin fever kind of way.
“The most exciting thing is opportunity to love another deeply and in a holistic way. Integrated. I can bring all of me and I want them to bring their full self — the fun stuff and the challenging stuff. To grow with another person and have them influence me and expand beyond their own comfort edges, too.”
Carolyn: Looking at how you do things now: what’s most exciting to you about the way you do poly?
Ginger: The most exciting thing is opportunity to love another deeply and in a holistic way. Integrated. I can bring all of me and I want them to bring their full self — the fun stuff and the challenging stuff. To grow with another person and have them influence me and expand beyond their own comfort edges, too. Maybe it’s the Gemini part of me that seeks curiosity and exploration.
Carolyn: What about it is a challenge?
Ginger: Taking on too much. I want all of the fun and all the opportunities but that’s simply not practical in a way that is sustainable.
Carolyn: Where does poly intersect with other elements of your identity? How does it function within your understanding of yourself?
Ginger: I think about poly as place of openness and abundance and choices, too. That bleeds into how I do my work in regards to influencing people to not approach things in a binary mono way.
Identity-wise I think it affords me the perspective of exploring all of me with different people. I’m insatiably curious about other people’s stories and what they know and how they know things.
Poly can feel like the most deviant of all the parts of my identities. Mono culture is deep in ways that I don’t think we often fully understand. I think being queer is more understood but that being poly makes a lot of people uncomfortable. There’s a lot of negative assumptions. and our culture is structured to be so mono partnered. Even the race towards gay marriage affirms that norm. There’s a scarcity element, in the sense of that the dominant narrative and I’d argue how our society and culture is structured is that you are seeking a soul mate, one person can fulfill all your needs. That’s super limiting and, I’d argue, boring. And it means you are in a one-to-one relationship with someone without realizing how you’re in multiple relationships to others all the time, at work, with friends, family, etc. For me, standing in my poly identity allows me to see all my relationships as valuable.
Carolyn: What do you want your future to look like? What vision are you working towards or hoping for?
Ginger: My most ideal vision is to have my own apartment, Atlee has his, and I can go to and fro and as I please. I entertain the idea of bringing in other person into our current living situation but I’m not totally sure how that would would work out. At times it seems like it would be much easier and more efficient. The most consistent vision is to have deep and healthy emotion connections that bring physical benefits with probably max three people in my life, Atlee being one.