Author Archives: Alberto

Love kintsugi: how polyamory is making me better at dealing with heartbreaks

Kintsugi is a Japanese technique for repairing broken pottery with seams of gold. Kintsugi-repaired objects are often achingly beautiful. The break is not only made visible, but, in a sort of reversal, becomes the most precious part of the formerly broken object, ennobled by the precious material. As a practice, it implies embracing imperfection and mutability, a commitment to keep on cherishing the object after it lost its pristine-ness.

We all carry a precious item in our earthly journey: our own heart. And almost all of us have had it broken at least once. Polyamorous folks, perhaps, more than most. To me, that’s inevitable: polyamory amplifies everything, the good and the bad, the peaks and the slumps, the joys and the struggles. The good much more than compensates for the bad, which is why many of us are happy with being poly. But that does leave us with the problem of dealing with heartbreaks. Picking up the pieces. Shaking off the dust. Licking your wounds. And moving on.

The question is how to do it. You could aim for perfect healing (“I’m totally over her”), or even immunization (“that was a mistake. I will never repeat it”). You could attempt a cleanup and removal (“get her out of my system”, “out of sight, out of mind”).

I don’t want to do any of that. I don’t want to get over the people I love, or ever be immune to what, in them, made me fall in love in the first place. And certainly I do not want them out of my life. I want an arrangement where each one of us can still have feelings for the other (if that is what she or he wants), without anyone getting hurt.

Which leaves me with a Kintsugi-like approach. This always felt the most natural one for me. As I progressed through my love experience – which was fairly troubled, as you might expect from someone who is trying to live monogamously, while tending to fall in love with more than one person at a time – I noticed that I kept very good relationships with my ex girlfriends. It made sense: below the layer of grief, they were still amazing women. The fact that it had not worked between us did not make them any less amazing. And yes, some of them might have not done everything super right by me – but so what? I, too, am very far from perfect. Any wrongdoing seemed small and unimportant compared to what we had shared. We could go on and be friends, and generally we did.

As I became aware of polyamory, I learned that poly people like to say that “relationship don’t end, they just change”. Maybe so, but recasting a romantic partner as a friend is a deep change, one that contains many ends. Many thing you will never more share. Every polyamorist I know can testify that “change” can break your heart as bad as  “end”.

But here’s the interesting thing: the polyamory framework taught me that romantic relationships are not necessarily a package deal. Human connection has many dimensions, from romance to friendship, from sex to living together, from co-parenting to shared finances. You can connect with your partner in all these dimensions, but you can just as well connect only in some of them. What was going on with my former lovers, I realized, is that my romantic feelings for them had unbundled from those other practical dimensions of coupledom, except friendship. But they were still there: I still loved them.

This has not changed, and by now I don’t think it ever will. As I consider these wonderful women I have had the good fortune to be in relationships with, I can, still now, see exactly why I fell in love with them. Whatever it was (and it is different for different people), they still have it, even if we have changed so much. So, it makes perfect sense that I still love them, even though I can no longer be with them. Some of them I have loved for twenty years after the actual breakup. I will love them until the day I die. There is admiration for them in there, and some longing too, a sort of sweet ache in the place they once occupied in my heart.

This means my heart is no longer broken, but neither is it whole. It got broken by our breakup, and then it healed,  but not perfectly. I will always wear the scar. I want to wear the scar. It is a way to honor what we had, and honor the breakup itself as a step towards a new life, and keep both in my heart going forward. And if she is happy now, that helps – it means the breakup was for the better, it brought good things to her.

I expect that my heart will get broken again. Polyamory is difficult to get exactly right, and there is no book to do it by. It would be foolish to expect a 100% success rate going forward. But I am no longer afraid of breakups. I know they will feel awful, of course. But I will be ready. Like a Kintsugi master, I will pour molten gold in the fissures in my heart. This way, I honor the relationship that was, and accept and embrace its new phase. The heart itself – it won’t be whole, ever again. But it will shine.

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.

House beneath a stormy sky

At home in the storm. The strange solace of being Edgeryders

My company, Edgeryders, was born in the wake of a crisis.
 
It was 2011. Like many others, I struggled to navigate a difficult situation. It was not just the tight money, the hollow punditry, the self-importance of myopic leaders. It was the sudden questioning of basic building blocks of our societies. Is debt bad, after all? “Every child is born with tens of thousands of dollars in national debt”, admonished financial journalists. Or is it good? “A web of reciprocal debt is society, without mutual obligations people will turn their back on each other”, observed anthropologists. Is economic collapse fundamental? What do we know about it? Do we need all the stuff we buy, anyway? If not, what it is we need?
 
What should I do, I wondered? Support reformist candidates at the next elections? Are there any, or are all political agendas different finishings of the same basic mix? Rebel? And what to think of all these new movements, with strange names like Occupy Wall Street, M-25 or Los Indignados? What of the sudden wave of tech activism, with crypto parties at one end and infrastructure for massive untraceable leaks at the other?
 
“What should I do?” was the wrong question.
 
No one cares what I do. This is the real world, not some hero fantasy. And the real world is a set of interlocked complex adaptive systems. All important dynamics are collective, emergent. My personal choices make zero differences.
 
What made sense was to listen, and try to learn. This was likely to be the best investment, for three reasons.
 
First: people are smart and resourceful. Confronted with a crisis, they tend to step into the breach, invent, improvise. And they were. Alessia spun a web of small businesses who refused to pay protection money to mobsters. Matthias was producing a monumental collection of open source knowledge for autonomous living, from the scale of the household to that of the planet. Anthony was creating an open source protocol for producing human insulin. And on it went, idea after idea, project after project. Sharing economy. Crypto currencies. Urban agriculture. Network bartering. Co-living and co-working (which I now do myself).
 
Second, people are generous and well-meaning. Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent work confirms it: in a disaster, cohesive, super-efficient mutual aid communities come instantly to life. Though often struggling themselves, the folks that showed up at Edgeryders’ digital door went out of their way to support each other, give hard-won knowledge away, help others to learn.
 
And third, there is a specific locus in society where most of this happens. At the center of society, where most of the power and the money, there is little incentive for systemic change. Everything is going great. At its outskirts, where the poorest and most vulnerable people live, there is little capacity. When you live hand to mouth, it is hard to invest time and energy in anything beyond immediate needs. But between the two, there is a liminal space where people struggle, but maintain some agency. They have both the incentive and the capacity to attempt systemic change. We call this “the edge” of society.
 
So, Edgeryders came together in 2011-2012 as a listening exercise in a crisis-ridden Europe, underwritten by the Council of Europe. We found the expected resourcefulness and generosity. But we also found something we had not been looking for: a shared sense of opportunity. In a crisis, the center becomes weaker, softer, more permeable. At the same time, the people of the edge, more rugged, find themselves with more agency. Suddenly, people were listening to us. We could try to use the crisis as a raft, to carry us from the broken old world to a better, saner one.
 
That attempt failed: the old world is still here. But in 2013, as the crisis started to recede, a core of dedicated contributors had emerged. I was no longer alone: there was a “we”. And we decided to spin it off into its own company. We structured it as an utopian experiment. No debt, no central command (“no plan is the plan”), no office, no work hours. Digital workspaces accessible to everyone on the web (“working out loud”). Relentless do-ocracy (“who does the work calls the shots”). To its founders’ surprise, the company is still around, and growing. And it is doing work that feels meaningful, studying (and trying to influence) community health care, European populism, the Internet’s evolution.
 
Now we are in a new crisis, even more disruptive than the one that birthed us. On a personal level, we are all affected. But, as a collective, it feels like coming home. Edgeryders-the-community looks the same, though it is much larger now. The same sense of feverish grassroots activity; the same aspiration to a fairer, saner world. The same tools – cheap tech, knowledge sharing, and above all reliance on each other. The same disenchantment with the powerful structures of the center – governments, business, politicians.
 
But Edgeryders-the-company is very different. We are more experienced, more battle-tested than in 2011. We have better tech, better processes, better access and a way better team. The pandemic did not even slow us down much: we were already native to distributed collaboration. And so, amidst the fake news fury, the posturing of politicians and pundits, the longing for loved ones we cannot see, some of us feel a strange solace. Grim as it is, this is where we are meant to be. Work needs doing, and we can help, in the company of people we love and respect. What more could we ask for?
Photo credit: Mark Iocchelli