Category Archives: polyamory

The Somerville files: a dyadic approach to legislating on polyamorous domestic partnerships

The city of Somerville, Massachussets, has recently been in the news. It appears to be the first city in America, and possibly in the world, to have made legal provisions for polyamorous domestic partnerships – what most Europeans would call “civil unions”.

This story is fascinating, one of the less expected outgrowth of the SARS-COV-2 situation. The new regulation appears to have been rushed through because Somerville had no provision for civil partnerships at all, even for monogamous couples. As COVID hit town, the city council moved to make sure that non-married people in de facto couples could access each other’s health insurance. As the council was drafting the ordinance, a councilor called J.T. Scott suggested that it could be made more inclusive by tweaking the language to include polyamorous live-in partners: for example, replacing “both partners” with “all partners” as appropriate. The move went through.

This is great news for poly people everywhere, and Mr. Scott earned himself plenty of kudos; but I won’t be discussing the Somerville story in this post. I have a more urgent concern: I have come across a brilliant analysis of how to write effective legislation to implement polyamorous domestic partnership. We owe it to a longtime polyamory activist that goes by the nom de plûme Infinity_8p. I read it in the PolyAmory Researchers mailing list,  which is members-only. Infinity_8p graciously granted  me the permission to reproduce it.  In a nutshell, the author thinks that polyamorous partnership are best implemented as multiple dyadic partnerships, and not as a single multiparty partnership.

It is evident from the legislative history and the final result that little or no deep thought was given to the task of finding the best way to extend domestic partnership to the poly community. Nevertheless, it appears to me that under Somerville’s ordinance, users can correctly create accurate legal representations of their own polycules by 1) limiting each domestic partnership to two participants, and 2) executing as many domestic partnerships as needed in order to correctly represent their polycule. Thus a “N” polycule or a triangular polycule would execute three domestic partnerships and a “V” polycule would execute two. Attempting to use a single domestic partnership to cover the entire polycule is inappropriate, as it would result in unwanted effects. Suppose we have an “N” polycule: A-B-C-D, where A is directly linked to B but not to C or D. With multiple DPs, only B can make life-or-death decisions on A’s behalf if A is hospitalized, which precisely follows A’s preference. Under a blanket DP, C and/or D could make those life-or-death decisions about A, regardless of A’s wishes. Furthermore, consider the termination provision of Somerville’s ordinance. If any participant in a DP dies, the DP is terminated immediately and its participants may not create another DP for 90 days afterward. Under a blanket DP, the rest of the polycule is left without any legal representation if a single member happens to die. With multiple DPs, the death of a single member only affects the DPs linking the deceased member to specific other members of that polycule, and all DPs between living members of the polycules remain fully intact, without interruption.

Infinity_8p thinks that the Somerville ordinance is compatible with both models. If Alice is a partner of Bea who is a partner of Connor, who in turn is a partner of Alice, and the three of them share the same address, they could:

  1. Implement one single partnership involving the three of them;
  2. Implement three partnerships involving, respectively, Alice and Bea, Bea and Connor, and Connor and Alice.

Infinity_8p thinks that the second solution is more robust and in the end more appropriate. I tend to concur (network scientist here!). Full analysis in this guest post.

A dyadic approach to legislating on polyamorous domestic partnerships: full analysis

Infinity_8p, a longtime polyamory activist, granted me (Alberto) permission to openly share this work on the web. For context and an introduction, read this post first.

There is an ongoing discussion among polyamory activists regarding a legal model of polyamorous marriage (i.e., the extension of the legal concept of marriage to include polyamorous families). One debate centers around the relative merits of an all-with-all approach to marriage (whereby three or more persons are all joined together at the same time within a single marriage) and dyadic networks (whereby existing laws against bigamy are revised such that people are perfectly free to be concurrently married to multiple other persons, provided that each such new marriage is preceded by a legal notification regarding the pending new marriage to all those to whom one is already married; failure to provide that legal notification would then constitute the updated crime of bigamy).

Dyadic networks would result in what might be thought of as a “molecular” family structure — one which might be best represented by the molecular diagrams commonly used in chemistry. In this way, marriage would remain a dyadic relationship (i.e., a relationship between two persons), thus minimizing any changes to the existing system of legal marriage, but the introduction of concurrency would provide access to legal marriage for polyamorous families.

Dyadic networks can correctly represent any situation associated with the “all-with-all” paradigm, as well as many situations that the “all-with-all” paradigm cannot deal with. A “complete” dyadic network would take the form of a complete graph, in which every person is (pairwise) married to every other person, thus correctly representing any situation associated with the “all-with-all” paradigm. A dyadic network may also represent situations in which some persons are (pairwise) married to some members of the dyadic network but not to all of them (“V” and “N” geometries, for example) — these are situations that the “all-with-all” marriage paradigm is unable to accurately represent.

The “all-with-all” marriage paradigm assumes that everyone is equally involved with everyone else in the group — one global marriage agreement has to fit every participant at the same time. But dyadic network marriages separately define the terms of each specific 2-person relationship, and these dyadic marriages do not typically happen at the same time (A marries B, B marries C (“V” structure), C marries D (“N” structure), etc. — thus, the shape of the dyadic network dynamically changes over time). Participants in a dyadic network need not even be aware of the specific terms of marriage agreements existing elsewhere within the same dyadic network.

Under the “all-with-all” marriage paradigm, when irreconcilable differences arise there can be no alternative to a complete separation — one person cannot divorce another without ending the entire marriage agreement for everyone involved. But dyadic networks can function in much the same way as watertight compartmentalization functions in naval vessels, i.e., to limit and contain damage. An intense disagreement between two persons takes place within the context of their marriage, and need not greatly involve (or threaten) the relationships between other participants. Within a well-connected dyadic network, a divorce between two persons need not result in a complete separation of the network — for example, a dyadic network with triangle geometry would simply turn into a dyadic network with “V” geometry.

An “all-with-all” marriage can only exist or cease to exist. In contrast, the shape of a dyadic network can dynamically change over time. Divorces subtract connections, and marriages add connections. The dyadic network itself either changes shape, separates into two dyadic networks, or merges into another dyadic network, depending on the precise nature of the newly added or subtracted connection.

The maximum size of an “all-with-all” marriage is limited by the fact that every participant must be aware of the existence of every other participant (otherwise the global marriage contract would be invalid, because it could not satisfy the legal condition known as a “meeting of the minds”). But since a dyadic network relies only upon every participant’s local knowledge of his or her own direct partners, its size is theoretically unlimited. The dyadic network paradigm is so powerful that it is theoretically capable of managing a situation in which every adult on earth is legally joined together in a single enormous dyadic network. Thus, with the dyadic network model, the idea of “many loves” is directly translated into a practical reality, and the “infinity” symbol (representing love without limits) is directly matched by a marriage model capable of handling an infinitely large number of participants.

Implementing Dyadic Networks

Within the United States, 41 states (82%) use the “equitable distribution” financial model, which is highly compatible with dyadic networks. But there are also nine other states (18%) with a financial model that is incompatible with dyadic networks – these are collectively referred to as the “community property” states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin).

The implementation method for the “community property” states is that the dyadic networks model will simply coexist with the old “community property” monogamy model. New marriages will automatically default to the dyadic networks model, but if the couple prefers the monogamous “community property” model then they have the option of selecting that model instead.

Consider, for example, the existing marriage laws of Alaska. Alaska is an “equitable distribution” state, hence couples who marry in Alaska will marry under the “equitable distribution” model by default, but these couples can instead elect to marry under the “community property” monogamy model if they wish (they do this by executing either a community property agreement or a community property trust).

Alaska thus constitutes an existence proof that both financial models can peacefully coexist within the same U.S. state’s legal system. Alaska’s example shows that even community property states can easily be modernized to accomodate dyadic networks.

Polyamorous Commitment

The Dyadic Networks model of polyamorous marriage raises important questions related to marital commitment. With a single dyad, the situation is simple; each spouse commits to support and protect the other, and the logic of conventional monogamous marriage applies. However, when multiple dyads intersect in a dyadic network, how exactly does the commitment process work?

To understand this, let us consider the parent-child relationship. In the parent-child situation, the support commitment exists only in one direction – from parent to child. When there is a single parent, the child has a single source of commitment, and all protection must come from that source. However, when there are two parents, they are jointly responsible for meeting the child’s needs. The precise arrangement is worked out somehow, and provided that the child’s needs are being met the law has no need to intervene. If the child’s needs are not being met, then debt collection methods such as garnishing wages, seizing assets, etc. can and do occur in order to ensure that child support takes place. These actions are typically proportional to income and/or wealth, so the wealthier parent will pay more. Where a parent has commitments to multiple children, the parent must faithfully carry out his or her responsibilities to each and every child. Although it may sometimes seem that the needs of children are unlimited, this is not actually the case, and once a child’s needs are satisfied (a certain amount of food, shelter, medical care, etc.), all parents of that child may regard their commitments as being satisfied with respect to each need for which adequate provision has been made, regardless of which parent(s) actually did the work of satisfying that need.

Turning now to commitment in the dyadic network model, this can be understood as a bidirectional version of the parent-child model. Each dyad represents a commitment of each spouse to the other. Thus, in a V configuration, the two partners at the ends of the V each rely upon commitments from the single partner at the center of the V (the “pivot”) – each of them has one spouse. The “pivot” partner can rely upon two commitments, one from each of the two partners at the two ends of the V – the pivot partner has two spouses. If the pivot partner is incapacitated, he or she is in a position comparable to that of a child with two parents – two people are committed to assist him or her and must do so up to the point at which the pivot partner’s needs are satisfied. If one of the partners at the end of the V is incapacitated, he or she has only one spouse to rely upon – the pivot partner, who is fully responsible for meeting the incapacitated partner’s needs up to the point at which that partner’s needs are satisfied. If both partners at the end of the V are incapacitated, then the pivot partner is in a position comparable to that of a single parent with two sick children – he or she must meet the needs of both.

Let us now consider whether the commitment relationship is “transitive” – if A is committed to B, and B is committed to C, does this mean that A is committed to C? No, this is not the case. C can legally rely only upon the commitment of B and has no legal basis to expect or receive a commitment from A. Nor can A rely upon the commitment of C – that could happen only when and if A directly married (mutually committed to) C. However, suppose that C’s needs are so large that B is thereby driven into bankruptcy and becomes destitute. Then B can rely upon A’s commitment to provide B with a certain minimal level of support (food, shelter, medical care, etc.). Thus C’s needs can have an effect on B that causes A to provide more support to B than would have been the case had C not needed to draw heavily upon B’s commitment.

Hence, under the dyadic networks model, positive effects arise as a result of multiple commitments. When there is only a single dyad, there is a substantial risk that the size of the commitment will exceed the capacity of the committed. However, when each person is linked to multiple other partners in a dyadic network, this has the effect of bringing in additional capacity to meet any needs that may arise. Three or four spouses may be easily able to carry a commitment load that would have quickly driven a single spouse into bankruptcy.

The analogy to parent-child relationships carries over into other situations as well. Just as it would be improper to discriminate against a parent for having too many children (or too few children), so it would be improper to discriminate against a person for having too many or too few spouses. But with each additional child comes an additional commitment, and the same is true of an additional spouse. Adding another child to one’s health insurance coverage will usually result in an increased monthly charge for the insurance, thus adding another spouse would probably have a comparable effect. But a child, or a spouse, only needs to be covered once, regardless of how many parents, or spouses, are available to provide that coverage. Also, a spouse may be economically self-supporting and thus able to pay for his or her own health insurance, so in this respect the total support cost for an additional spouse would then be zero.

Having drawn lessons from the parent-child relationship and applied them to dyadic networks, let us now draw a lesson from dyadic networks and apply it to the parent-child relationship. Just as there is no inherent reason why a person should not have more than one spouse, so there is no inherent reason why a child should not have more than two parents. When the law of marriage is updated to legally support dyadic networks, the existing adoption mechanism can be used as a means by which additional commitments to children can be created. For example, a single dyad may have already produced two children when each member of the dyad marries a third partner, thus creating a triangle. The newest member of this dyadic network can then execute two adoptions to become the third parent of each of the dyad’s two children. Hence, in this situation, each of the three adults now has two spouses and two children. To the extent that any legal barriers might hinder the use of adoption in this manner, such legal barriers would also need to be direct targets of polyamory’s legal activism (in addition, of course, to updating the law of marriage to support dyadic networks).

This N-parent situation has already been raised in the New York Times (When 3 Really Is A Crowd, July 16 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/16/opinion/16marquardt.html ): “On April 30, a state Superior Court panel ruled that a child can have three legal parents. […] Arthur S. Leonard, a professor at New York Law School, observed, ‘I’m unaware of any other state appellate court that has found that a child has, simultaneously, three adults who are financially obligated to the child’s support and are also entitled to visitation.’ […] As one advocate of polygamy argued in Newsweek, ‘If Heather can have two mommies, she should also be able to have two mommies and a daddy.’ If more children are granted three legal parents, what is our rationale for denying these families the rights and protections of marriage?” Our firm answer: there cannot be any legitimate rationale for the unconstitutional denial of this legal protection to polyamorous families.

The New York Times op-ed raises a question: “Conflicts will undoubtedly arise when three parents confront the sticky, conflict-ridden reality of child-raising, often leading to a nasty, three-way custody battle. Even if they part amicably, they may still want to live in three different homes. In that case, how many homes should children travel between to satisfy the parenting needs of many adults?” The legal answer has been provided by New York Law School Professor Arthur S. Leonard (Pennsylvania Court Finds Three Adults Can Have Parental Rights, May 01, 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20130413152011/http://newyorklawschool.typepad.com/leonardlink/2007/05/pennsylvania_co.html ): “[…] the court gave Jennifer primary custody of the one nephew who was living with her, and partial custody (visitation rights) with the other three children; Jodilynn got primary custody of the three children and partial custody (visitation) with the one nephew, and Carl was awarded partial custody (visitation) of one weekend a month with his two children.” In the event of divorce, family law judges will calculate child support obligations and distribute visitation rights in accordance with the best interests of the child(ren).

Dating and intimacy in lockdown: some experiments

Someone on this forum expressed a curiosity for how people take care of their intimate life while locked down and quarantined away, unable to freely connect with those we love. As we enter the sixth week of lockdown in Belgium, I think I am ready to share some thoughts and the results of a few experiments I have been making.

Context

I am openly polyamorous. At the time of writing, I am in three stable relationships – hopefully I will keep them for the rest of my life. A possible fourth one was just starting up when SARS-CoV-2 entered our lives. So, even in “normal” times, I spend quite a long time thinking about my love life, and taking care of the safety and happiness of my lovers. I am what’s called a “solo poly”: I do not live with any of my lovers. Rather, I have my own place, which I use as a platform to spend time with them all.

Lockdown is especially hard on poly folks like me. Monogamous people can simply hole in with each other, but this is almost never practical in polyamorous constellations. Choices have to be made; practical choices, for the most part, but often with emotional consequences.

The law and public institutions make little or no provision for polyamorous people. I live in Belgium: recently, a Flemish TV show on how ordinary people live out their quarantine interviewed a member of the polyamorous community. By sheer coincidence, immediately after her, the same program interviewed Marc van Ranst, the epidemiologist leading the committee for national security that determines Belgium’s lockdown measures. The host asked van Ranst if he had polyamorous people in mind when he designed those rules. He replied he has the utmost respect for our choices, but, actually, no, not at all. You can see the whole thing (in Dutch) here.

Making choices: preparing for the confinement period

Maybe because I have family and friends in Italy, I saw the confinement measures coming, and had some time to prepare for them. The first thing I did was consider the situation of my present and possible-near-future-lovers. Here I refer to them with pretend names to protect their privacy.

Two of them, that I will call Jessica and Stéphanie, have nesting partners. For them, the choice of how to spend the quarantine was made.

The other two, whom I will call Monique and Roberta, are solo polys, like me. But unlike me, they do not live in co-housing spaces, but rather in small-ish apartments in small towns.

That made me decide to ask both Monique and Roberta  to move in with me before the confinement started. Before I made a move, I spoke or messaged the latter two and confirmed they were OK with it. They were, as I knew they would, but forms are important, and I wanted to give them a voice in my process. Next, I called Monique and Roberta, and made them the offer. More concretely, I offered them each their own room. One could stay in my room, the other in her guest room – I had previously cleared with my housemates that I could commandeer the guest room for the duration of the confinement. Me, I would sleep on the office’s couch, or something like that, and occasionally with one of them.

Roberta accepted immediately. More of an extrovert, she feared loneliness and estrangement during the confinement. Monique, hesitated, but ended up saying no. She gave three reasons: she is more of an introvert, more at ease with being alone than most; our relationship is still quite new, so it is more of a big deal to move on in together, even if it is only temporary; and she is working on a thesis, and thought she could take advantage of this period to get most of it written. Roberta moved in just before the quarantine.

Dating someone who lives in the same house

I insisted on giving Roberta her own room. We are now holed up together, making the best of a bad situation, but we are still, and intend to remain, solo polys. Even if we decided to move on in together at some point, SARS-CoC-2 is a really bad reason to do it. So, for now, we decided it is important to keep a sense of autonomy through this period.

We sleep separately, but then “go on dates”. We dress up, light a candle, maybe cook something special, or order in, then proceed to a “your place or mine” kind of discussion. We still manage to make these moments special. On most non-date nights we typically spend time together anyway, but in a more relaxed manner. Roberta is great at this: after an initial phase of calibration, she managed to reassure me that our relationship is going to survive confinement more or less intact, even strengthened (unless this situation lasts for a very long time, which would obviously change the balance).

Virtually dating distant lovers

That leaves me with the problem of caring for my relationships with Monique, Jessica and Stéphanie. Jessica lives in Brussels: I can see her, keeping  distance, go for walks with her and so on. It sucks that I cannot touch her, but I can live with it for a short while – also, Jessica and I have been together for many years, our relationships is very solid. But both Monique and Stéphanie are long distance relationships.

I have been able to find two solutions. The first one is a virtual equivalent of a coffee/dinner date. The main trick, I find, is to make a big deal of an otherwise simple communication event. I am not just calling you, honey, this is a date! I insist a bit on it beforehands (“I am so looking forward to tomorrow’s date!” and similar). I go out of my way to show that I am making an effort, because I love them and care deeply about them feeling loved. Rituals and apparently extravagant behavior function – I hope – as tokens of my commitment to them.

So, I try to make these “virtual dates” a nice experience for them. Again, I dress up as if I were going out; adorn the room with candles; and prepare some technology. My setup consists of:

  • A MacBook Pro
  • An account with a professional conference call service – currently I use Zoom, working to switch to something less evil soon.
  • A professional condenser microphone, with a boom. I have an AKG 414 from my music days.
  • An audio board to convert the mic signal into digital – I use a Centrance MicPort Pro, but any audio board will do the trick as long as it can supply 48 volt phantom power to the microphone.
  • Bluetooth speakers – these are less important, because they only make the experience better for me, but not for them. Any will do.

When the date starts, Monique and Stéphanie see a dressed-up Alberto, in a cosy, candle-lit room. They hear my voice in high fidelity. We have both made time for the call, we are both in private spaces and can devote some quality time to each other. Monique in particular gets this very well: at our first virtual date she showed up in a beautiful short black dress, full make up, jewellery and had lit  candle of her own. She had even put on perfume! I don’t think I ever loved her more. Stéph, who (like me) does not even like phone calls, did not go to the same length, but reported she really liked the experience and is happy to continue “dating” like this for the duration of the confinement.

(Future) explorations in cyber-intimacy

Virtual dates were a novelty, and they got us through the first three weeks of lockdown. What else can I do to keep my lovers engaged and interested, and demonstrate my affection? Monique gave me a very nice idea. It turns out she is into ASMR. So, I used standard digital recording software to experiment with whispering sweet nothings into my microphone, in an attempt to create an intimate sonic space. Most ASMR fans do not see it a sexual experience, so that is not cybersex, but rather cyber-intimacy. Which is fine: happy to experiment with anything that might bring us closer. I could in principle have any of them curl up in bed, with me whispering them to sleep.

This would involve the same technical setup as for virtual dates, but on top of that a good noise-cancelling headphones on her side. One issue here is that ASMR is more immersive if you can record sound in stereo: this would require using two microphones, or, failing that, adding a stereo reverb to the mono signal using some kind of virtual effects rack. I have not looked into this yet.

I am not sure I will, though. Cyber-intimacy only goes so far. As confinement continues, video-conferencing fatigue sets in, for them as well as for myself. Also, it seems likely that at least some restrictions will be lifted fairly soon.  Music festivals are out of the question, but we might be (more) able to see our lovers.

But what then? Lockdown might be lifted, but this bug is going to be with us for years, possibly many years. The main issue is quantifying risks. I am personally very happy to take a moderate risk to myself to see my lovers. And I can easily verify if they, too are willing to take them (early indications: yes). But there is an ethical problem here: what about the risks accruing to my lovers’ other lovers?  And to their lovers? Not to speak of their children, elderly parents etc. If the One Love Networks hypothesis is correct, we have no way to get the consent of all these people. I predict a lot of computing probabilities in the near future.

Everyone should actively assess risks for others, and seek ways to minimize them, not just poly folks. But the bell rings clearer for us, tor two reasons. The first: because were already aware that we bear responsibilities for the well-being of those lovers’ lovers, whom we night know know little, or not at all. We were already protecting the community. The second: because no one – not the government, not epidemiologists – is doing our homework for us. And here’s another prediction: poly people will become more safe to be around than monogamous folks, because we will adopt stricter standards. This has already happened with sexually transmitted diseases, and it will happen again with SARS-COV-2 and its ilk. Buckle up everyone, we have work to do. More on risk assessment in the coming days.