Today’s article – the final of the ‘seven in seven’ series – was inspired by a conversation Nomad and I had this morning, around my frequently feeling that I need to ask permission to do certain things.
The idea of ‘permission’ can be a tricky thing in relationships, whether they’re monogamous or poly, and manifests itself in several different ways. I’d like to look at a couple of issues one at a time.
Every poly person, couple and group do this differently, sometimes having explicitly negotiated rules and sometimes taking things and working them out as they come up. Does everybody within the group/network/tribe/family (delete as appropriate) get to ‘vet’ any new person who somebody wants to bring in? Does every partner have to give their permission before anybody can get involved with someone new? Does the primary partner only, if there is one, have to give their permission? Or does nobody?
I’m not sure how I feel about permission-based dynamics. As with most things, it’s all shades of grey between black and white. I think they can, if used correctly and ethically, be a way to ensure that everybody involved feels secure and as though they have some control. On the other hand, they’re a perfect tool for abuse and overly controlling behaviour, if anyone is inclined to use them as such.
Asking for permission is a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, it makes me know that my partner(s) really is (are) happy with whatever is going on. Giving them the option to tell me they have a problem with it, without any negative consequences to them, makes their consent more meaningful in my opinion. They are actively saying ‘yes, I am okay with this,’ as opposed to going along with something because they feel they have no choice. (And this is why I think active-rather-than-passive consent models are important outside of the bedroom as well as in it!)
On the other hand, asking for permission can sometimes make me feel powerless. It can feel too much like putting the control for what I can and can’t do into another person’s hands. And one thing I find really difficult and triggering is feeling out of control.
One way I’ve found to at least partly get around this, and seek a partner’s actual consent (as opposed to going-along-with-it-because-they-feel-they-have-no-choice consent) is to say ‘I’d like to date/get involved with/see how things develop with X, how do you feel about that?’ It amounts to the same thing, and helps me to feel less out of control. The difference between that and saying ‘may I do this?’ is subtle, but effective. Of course, it’s not perfect and I’m constantly thinking about and seeking ways to improve interactions and communication for everyone involved. But it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.
This morning, I asked Nomad’s permission to spend a weekend in a few weeks’ time visiting a friend, and he was a little surprised – why would I need permission, and why would I give someone the power to refuse that permission, even if it’s a power they’d never use?
I think a lot of it boils down, once again, to programming and past experiences. Society tends to tell us women that hanging out alone with someone who happens to be male, if we have a boyfriend, is probably a no-no. And if we are allowed to, we’re just lucky in having a man who’s so incredibly trusting and tolerant. We’re our boyfriend’s property, after all, and must be shielded from other men, because a man (who’s attracted to women) and a woman (who’s attracted to men) can never really be just friends, of course….! </sarcasm.> More than one of my exs bought into this, and I was once flat-out banned from going to spend an evening with a friend because he happened to be a heterosexual male. (Let’s not get into the complete bi-erasure here, in that if they were so concerned about me straying, they should have been concerned about women just as much as men…)
In this respect, I feel as though it would be more empowering, for myself, to stop asking permission as such. He doesn’t expect me to, and I would never expect him (or any partner) to ask my permission for the same thing. I’d hate to fall into a dynamic, with anything, where it came down to ‘I’m doing this and there’s nothing you can do to stop me!’ But there’s a world of possibility between these two extremes.
What about making plans together, sharing plans for things you’re doing separately, and trusting your partner to tell you if they have a genuine concern about something?
As with so many things, non-consensual power dynamics in relationships can come into play with permission-based systems of interaction. As a quick example, I once had a rule in a past relationship where I had to ask permission to do anything beyond kissing with somebody else. Yet they went and casually had oral sex with someone, without bothering to ask me, and didn’t expect me to be annoyed when I was told later. For a variety of reasons I was the considerably less powerful partner in that relationship, and so having to ask permission for everything – but give permission for nothing – was a situation I wasn’t terribly happy with, but had little choice in, as I felt that protesting or leaving the relationship wasn’t a possibility at that time. I think I’m still struggling sometimes with the feelings of disempowerment that came with this, leading me to err on the side of (extreme) caution now when it comes to what I do and don’t need to ask partners’ permission for.
(On a slightly different but related note, I’m aware I share a lot of personal experiences – not all of them positive – in this blog. I’d like to ask if that’s a good/bad/indifferent thing for you guys as readers? I’m always very careful never to share names or identifying information of past partners, and Nomad has given his consent for me to write about our interactions and our relationship. I share these experiences because the way I prefer to illustrate my points is with anecdotes to support my thoughts/feelings. How do you guys feel about this way of doing things?)
Now back to the topic at hand – what do you think, lovely readers? What things do you, or don’t you, need to ‘ask permission’ for in your relationships? How do you feel about ‘permission’ dynamics in general?
I hope you’ve enjoyed the seven-in-seven articles. I’ve really enjoyed this little self-imposed challenge, particularly seeing you guys engaging and commenting and getting into discussions. So yay for you all!
More soon. I have dozens more ideas for things I want to write about. If only that pesky dissertation wasn’t calling to me to finish it…..!