Opinion: An Uncommon Sense Approach To Polyamory

Lisa provides a personal account of the intersections of polyamory and neurodiversity
Feature by Lisa.
Published 02 January 2013

Navigating through the feelings, intentions and expectations of others can be tricky for anyone.  For some people it comes with a few extra hurdles.  I have dyspraxia, a specific learning difference that affects co-ordination, organisation and several other areas.  For some dyspraxic folk, including myself, it overlaps with or includes traits of autistic spectrum conditions.

I’m also polyamorous. It may seem surprising that someone with social difficulties would gravitate towards a relationship style involving multiple loving and/or sexual partners. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of polyamory will often recite the warning, “It’s not easy. You need to be great with organisation and have excellent communication skills.”  These are two areas where I certainly don’t excel.

I have trouble picking out information from body language and contextual cues. I find it difficult to link literal meanings with background information or other more subtle forms of communication. For example, I’ve occasionally appeared rude for not realising that sentences like, “Would you like to take a seat?” can be requests rather than questions. I also find it hard to pick up on the unwritten rules of social interactions.  What comes ‘naturally,’ or is seen as ‘common sense’ (an ableist concept in my opinion) to most people, can be more difficult for me to keep up with. Struggling to work out what people are expecting of me causes me stress and uncertainty.

Traditionally, a monogamous relationship set-up is the norm. When I’ve been in monogamous relationships, the fact that it was monogamous wasn’t even decided upon. It was unquestioned. Within this framework –especially, I think, if it’s not a queer relationship – it can be easy to let other behaviours slip into unquestioned norms, following unspoken rules. 

The somewhat queer nature of poly relationships means they can’t rely as heavily on prefabricated scripts.  They must be built from scratch around the needs, personalities and bodies of each partner. As someone who has trouble figuring out the unwritten rules of social interaction it’s incredibly liberating to throw away the rule book altogether. There is no room for assumptions; the multitude of expectations and boundaries functioning in the relationship(s) are more likely to be explicitly discussed and defined in detail. Knowing exactly what’s OK, what isn’t, and what a partner wants from me is a much more comfortable way to be.  There’s also a structure there to get everyone’s slots of time worked into something resembling a schedule.  The aspects of a poly relationship style that may seem regimented or unromantic to others are what most appeal to me. It feels safe, with some level of certainty and predictability.

Of course, an emphasis on explicit communication of expectations and an element of structure are not solely confined to polyamory.  Other aspects of my dyspraxia interact with relationships in ways that are.

Sex with me can be a wee bit awkward. I’m generally uncoordinated and slightly over-sensitive to touch and pain. If I’m someone’s sole sexual partner then I can feel like I’m letting them down. Similarly, since I have difficulty picking up on subtle signals and non-verbal communication, it can be hard for me to provide sufficient support in times when a partner feels unable to verbalise a problem. The knowledge that someone I care for gets sexual and emotional fulfilment from additional partners is comforting.

Though my perspective can’t be extrapolated to everyone, or even all those who are dyspraxic, queer, cis, or women, I’ve come to learn that polyamory works for me.  It suits my needs and my personality, both of which I consider to be inextricable from my dyspraxia.

Comments (8)

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  • This is a pretty great article!

    Posted by CJ_Dudebro | Sunday 06 January 2013 @ 22:33

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  • Awesome, insightful, and incredibly well-written. A+++ WOULD READ AGAIN (aka it was amazing)

    Posted by Dandy Flipperpin | Sunday 06 January 2013 @ 23:32

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  • Dyspraxia dosn't include or overlap with autism or ASD traits, they are separate but linked neurodiverse conditions and someone may fulfill diagnostic criteria for one and not the other or both simultaneously. As a dyspraxic person (who has no ASD issues), I get annoyed when people suggest the two are parts of the same. Other than that this was an interesting article.

    Posted by ilona | Monday 07 January 2013 @ 22:43

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  • Thanks very much for commenting :). Ilona- I completely agree that someone can be dyspraxic and not on the autistic spectrum or vice verse. However, I think there are some overlapping traits such as sensory processing issues and problems with cognitive function and executive function. The conditions are also co-morbid: people diagnosed with one are much more likely than the general population to have the other (as well as other neurological differences including dyslexia, dyscalculia, OCD and ADHD).

    From researching these topics, talking with neurodiverse friends, and interacting with the online dyspraxic community, it seems to me that it’s incredibly common for dyspraxic people’s neurological differences to spill out of what is undeniably dyspraxic in origin into traits of one or more of these co-morbid conditions to some degree.

    What I tried to say in this article, is that some (though certainly not all) dyspraxic people experience some level of social difficulties and other characteristically autistic traits. This is certainly true in my case. Both of these conditions exist on spectrums and will effect each individual with dyspraxia and/or an ASD in a unique way. The fact that I seem to have quite so many ASD traits does make me suspect that, should I be assessed for it, I may be given an additional diagnosis of some ASD. I am currently investigating this option with my GP.

    This article was purely intended as a personal account of my own individual neurology’s interaction with my romantic and sexual experiences, it was not an attempt to portray a generalisation of dyspraxic perspectives. I did not mean to give the impression that dyspraxia and autism are the same thing, or that one always comes with the other. I’m very sorry to have annoyed you and to have given misleading information about an already poorly understood condition.

    If anyone is looking for information on dyspraxia, I’d suggest checking out The Dyspraxia Foundation: http://www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk/services/dys_dyspraxia.php. For more over-arching neurodiveristy information, there’s DANDA: http://www.danda.org.uk/pages/neuro-diversity.php and for a cute and relatable meme- http://dyspraxicpanda.tumblr.com/

    Posted by Lisa | Tuesday 08 January 2013 @ 02:01

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  • As someone that used to be polyamorous, I found this to be an interesting article, mostly for how it highlights the selfish nature of the philosophy. The only way a long-term relationship can work is if both parties are trying to put the other's needs before their own, within reason. Monogamy may not be natural, but neither is drinking cow's milk or flying to the moon, so we are not animals driven solely by instinct. What makes humans such an exceptional animal is our ability to put reason, and the systems that form the base of a civilization, before our own animalistic desires. Every monogamous relationship faces the difficulties of boredom and the desire to wander, but you put the interests of your family (even ones without children) before your own. Your dyspraxia has nothing to do with your polyamorous nature and I truly believe you are using it as a crutch. I'm not saying this to hurt you, I genuinely want you to seek out therapy and at least discuss these matters with a professional that can explain things to you on a physiological level. The reason monogamy is just assumed in most relationships is because it is a strikingly obvious agreement that healthy people make.

    Posted by Derek | Thursday 12 September 2013 @ 05:20

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  • Derek: Wow. Compulsory-monogamist mythology and patronizing ableism all bundled up together FTW! I think I could fill out an entire Bullshit Bingo card just based on your insightful comment. ;)

    Lisa: Very nice article. I appreciate the clear link you made between neurodiversity, queerness, and the opportunity for individuals to design relationships that work for us from scratch. Thanks. :)

    Posted by Fox | Friday 20 September 2013 @ 23:56

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  • Derek: I love how someone analyzes an 'opinion piece' with with single-perspective opinions. Your slippery-slope analysis lands on it's own spear at the end with your comment "...a strikingly obvious agreement that healthy people make."

    Lisa's clarity of thought, introspection, and generous gift of insight makes this article a winner on many points.

    Every person has some malady. It may be neurologic, psychologic, or physical. Lisa has given a very complete and revealing presentation of how polyamory can support and interfere with one set of symptoms. This provides others a framework to analyze other problems or normalities in a poly setting. I applaud her, and her work.


    Although FOX said it better than I.

    Posted by Will | Friday 08 November 2013 @ 23:42

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  • Hey Derek.

    There’s a few points I would like to raise in response to your comment. I do not believe that I am using my dyspraxia as a crutch; a way to excuse my inability to overcome my selfish nature or animalistic desires (lol, I can’t even type that with a straight face). My consensual, considered and honestly communicated relationship choices are not unhealthy. I am already seeing a therapist, but thanks for your pseudoconcern.

    Fox and Will: Thank you so much. You are awesome.

    Posted by Lisa | Saturday 23 November 2013 @ 02:02

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