Monday, January 19, 2015

Words are hard

I find people's desire to wrangle of the usage of words to their own version of correct endlessly entertaining.  A lot of the time argument is entirely pointless as language drifts on its own even when powerful groups attempt to bash it into line in the way they want.  Sometimes though small groups, when vocal enough, can change the way people talk in general - witness the way that gay is fading as a general pejorative term.  (Obviously it is still used that way, but the pressure is on and the direction of movement is clear.)  Of course for every term that people successfully add or change there are a thousand that people try for and fail at.

Witness the discussion about solopoly, a word that refers to people who practice polyamory without a primary domestic partner.  That is, they date multiple people at a time with no intention of developing those relationships into live in partnerships.  Even though I have read plenty about the topic and spend lots of time around poly people I didn't recognize the word when I saw it.  I initially read it and assumed it was some type of poetry for some reason... you can parse it as 'solo + poly' easily enough but I didn't see that right away.  I recognized the concept from a variety of sources but the language hadn't even reached me yet so it seems highly unlikely that it is an agreed upon term.  The comments in the article I linked there had an interesting discussion about polyamory terms with plenty of heat on all sides.

One big thing polyamorous people argue about in that regard is the use of the term primary and secondary when referring to relationships.  Some poly folk get really upset about that terminology because of the implication of hierarchy.  They don't like the way the words can be used to imply that someone is of lesser importance.  I don't generally use primary / secondary to describe my relationships but I don't have a problem with the words because I use them descriptively.  Wendy is my domestic and romantic partner.  If I say "I am moving to Edmonton" everyone would correctly assume that we are going together and made a joint decision.  No one else in the world has such a role in my life and I think primary is a fine word to describe that.

The trick in this case is that I don't think that people with whom I have secondary relationships have an inherently subordinate position, nor do they require permission from someone 'higher up' to be there.  I am not looking to fill primary and secondary slots, I am just describing the roles that people happen to have in the life I live.  I certainly don't think that the primary / secondary description *does* fit everyone, much less that it *should*, but I can't deny that it is useful shorthand for my situation.  I think this is a very common problem when small or new groups try to find words to describe themselves - some people use words descriptively, others think of them prescriptively, then trouble starts.

There is an argument made that primary / secondary designations cause people to treat secondary partners badly and to think of them as being under the authority of the primary.  This dynamic can play out like "Sorry, my wife told me I have to break up with you because she finds you irritating" and that is, to me, a disastrous relationship model.  I don't think it is the words that cause that though, rather it is that people are sometimes total jerks and they use language to try to defend their bad behaviour.

Words are hard.  However, I think that they become less conflict ridden if people remember to keep "This generally conveys the right information" and "This defines you completely" separate in their minds.  Acknowledging that descriptive vs. prescriptive interpretations are quite different and that which we are talking about should be decided up front avoids a lot of arguments.


  1. It sounds to me like "primary" and "secondary" just aren't the right words. You described your partnership with Wendy as "domestic" and I think that's probably the right word. I guess to me the point would be to find a word that describes the moving-to-Edmonton issue completely independent of the romantic relationship. I know of at least one pair of elderly sisters who live together and who are probably about as attached to one another as most married couples but who (I presume) are not romantically entangled.

    We conflate romantic attachment with building your life around someone because of marriage and children, but marriage and children don't automatically come together anymore (not that they ever did), and people who are not romantically involved could be raising children together. When primary means "+domestic" and second means "not domestic" it seems like there is confusion that could be cleared up with a change of terms.

  2. If there is a better set of words that aren't overly clumsy I would happily use them but I don't know of any. The trouble is that domestic doesn't quite capture it exactly either. There is an emergency multiplier on people that I have (and which most people have, I assume) to tell them who is most important. If I get a phone call saying Wendy and one other person are in the hospital I am heading to see Wendy no matter who the other person is. If Wendy had a broken leg but my brother was dying I would go to see my brother because although his multiplier is lower the overall product is larger because of the more serious condition. Part of being primary isn't just living together, it is the raw multiplier.

    Not that I use primary to describe Wendy generally, of course. I call her my wife and people figure it out pretty well. It just seems that generally people get the right idea when I call her my primary partner so it works for me.

  3. I both accept my lower multiplier and am impressed at how quickly this devolved into math.

  4. So I get the "I say X and people pretty much get it" utility, and I'm not going to argue that it's wrong to do that. What I'm saying is that if these terms cause confusion in the poly community, it's probably because the distinction being made has nothing to do with being poly. Your example is between Wendy and your brother, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say you aren't romantically entangled with your brother. My highest emergency multiplier would be for my children (there are certain legal, ethical and practical considerations there, but I think they would win anyway), not my wife.

    I mean, you say, "The trick in this case is that I don't think that people with whom I have secondary relationships have an inherently subordinate position" but then you start talking about literally giving out ordinals and theirs being sub-Wendy.

    If our wives suddenly fell in love with one another and ran away, leaving us with our homes/kids and we decided to Brady-bunch it for logistical reasons, you would jump very high on my emergency multiplier list, but I don't think I'd be gay for you (though the premise of this scenario suggests I might be wrong?). In that event, I think you would care more about my emergency than about that of at least most lovers because I'm the one who cooks dinner some nights and picks up the kids from school (or whatever I do).

    My point is that the effect you are describing is not a modifier on a romantic relationship, but is orthogonal to romantic relationships. It's also unrelated to being poly. What the poly community uniquely brings to the discussion is clarity about the issue. For the romantitypical community, the order is (young kids/old spouse) -> (young spouse/old kids) -> blood relations -> close friends with some minor variation based on circumstances. The top two spots are supposed to be reserved for sexual partners and the results of your having sexual partners. It's just another thing we boring people get to assume without thought. But when I do think about it, the whole idea of emergency multipliers is just as relevant to me.