Applying Universal Access to Love and Polyamory
This post is the final one in a four-part series on polyamory, healing, and societal wounds. Start with part one.
This post is something of a footnote or a wrap-up to the Poly in Practice series. We started with talking about equity vs. equality in poly, then moved on to how capitalism fucks us all up, and then in the last post talked about some of the particular challenges of healing from past relationship trauma. Now, I want to come back to a theme I only briefly touched on in posts two and four: how we might tie disability justice ideas, and specifically the concept of universal access, in with practicing polyamory.
Really, ableism runs throughout this topic, and throughout the models of poly I’ve been challenging as too limiting in this series. The concept of equality is often applied in ableist ways, as is capitalism. Disability justice reminds us the playing field is not, in fact, level. Not everyone can reach the same milestone of equality by pulling on their bootstraps—nor should they. The concept of universal access suggests that the solution, however, isn’t necessarily trying to level the playing field by changing the milestone for people with disabilities, or helping with the bootstrap-pulling through charity or medical advances. Instead, entire systems can be designed from the ground up to be accessible to everyone—whether we’re thinking about architecture, communications infrastructure, or even relationship models.
Universal access focuses not on the “person with disabilities,” but on the range of ways in which people work, live, move, and communicate. Rather than “accommodating” one person or group of people, this model looks at how everyone can benefit from a broader definition of accessibility. Here, I’m thus going to make an effort to apply the idea of universal access to love—focusing on how poly communities can radically change the way we look at love and access to love with a focus on community growth rather than individual relationship challenges.
When you’re at the center of a relationship challenge or experiencing what one of my partners affectionately calls “bad brain,” it can feel quite isolating and even guilt-inducing. I’ve definitely spent time stewing in my own fears, insecurities, and presumed-to-be-unrealizeable desires in both polyamorous and monogamous relationships. When I’ve asked for a change to be made or a need to be met, it’s sometimes felt like I was the only one who could possibly benefit—like I was necessarily being selfish or taking away from a metamour by asking for something I needed. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone else in my poly network to feel this way—so how can we combat these natural fears and internal wibbles?
My idea of universal access to love doesn’t literally mean that everyone who wants love from a specific person gets it. I’m all for consent and autonomy! What it does mean, though, is a re-conceptulization of scarcity and abundance as alluded to in the earlier posts of this series, and a commitment to growth throughout a poly network or community.
The starting point for this universal access model is looking at everyones’ needs, at the entire universe of possible needs. Some are obvious: people tend to want time and energy from those with whom they share a romantic connection, they want to see their friends and metamours, they want opportunities for intimate connection. But these needs also vary a lot—I might want less time with a partner than my metamour does, or the amount of time I need may vary based on what’s happening in my life right now, or how much I care about my partner and metamour getting time together. There are also plenty of person-specific, relationship-specific, and situational needs when you factor in everything from children to health crises to financial concerns to anniversaries to power exchange dynamics. Given all this, I don’t think many people could actually list out every single need in their network and by whom each need must be met. Even if you can, it’s likely going to change in 24 hours!
What we can do, though, is be aware that there is a big universe of needs, often in flux, often including needs that could be met by more than one person, often dependent on various circumstances. Rather than focusing on specific relationship milestones and achieving goals or relationships “success” as defined by a traditional (poly or monogamous) model, which might tend to include hierarchy and competition and exciting things like exclusive marriage contracts (run away screaming, my pretties), we can focus on how the poly network or community as a whole can benefit. If we all want to level up together—through growth of relationships, through many of the unique needs of individuals being met, through keeping everyone in the network as healthy and happy as possible—then we can approach our individual needs (and fears) very differently.
Imagine the kind of awesomeness that might happen in a poly network where the foundational norms include open communication, awareness of our own needs and others’ needs, and encouraging collaborative solutions. Maybe it means that my metamour who has a car stops by with tea and decongestant when I’m sick, so that our partner doesn’t have to cancel her date and I get the support, compassion, and sweet sweet drugs that I might otherwise just be secretly craving. Maybe it means that an asexual person in a polycule with big physical touch needs gets to sleep with someone every night, whether a partner or not. Maybe it means that when someone is struggling, they’re able to be vulnerable and reach out to multiple people just to say “I need help and I don’t know what to do.” Maybe it just means that everyone learns about a mutual penchant for dirty stories within the polycule and the whole group gets personalized smutty fanfic recommendations from an eager-to-please service sub. Anything could happen!
Of course, I realize that not everyone has this kind of a network, or practices this kind of poly. It doesn’t necessarily work well in a community where folks don’t feel comfortable talking to their metamours. It can be hard to make the leap towards wanting your metamours’ needs met to the degree you want your own needs met, no matter how generous you are. That whole societal bullshit thing I talked about earlier certainly doesn’t help, as this model requires a pile of people who are all on the same page and ready to make a radical shift and unlearn deeply-held beliefs about human nature. But occasionally I’m an optimist, and I like this as an idea for potential practice. I believe that poly people can be incredibly creative, fluid, and flexible. If we gather our courage and are willing to be vulnerable with those we care about, then we can think about new solutions to old problems, pool our resources, and develop comfort with what economics would call “unequal” distribution in the name of universal access.
I hope you’ve learned something from this series on poly in practice. Even more, I hope that it’s sparked some of your own thoughts, and that you’ll share a link with your friends, leave a comment, or engage through social media. I would love to hear your add-ons, criticisms, and feedback.