Most of you probably know, but some of you may not know, that I am involved in a long-term committed open relationship. I believe that the reason for the relationship being non-monogamous is that both my partner and I desire to be together in a romantic sense, but we both mutually resist the idea that commitment, or even true love, should universally prohibit the flesh from exploring its desires in practically any and every consensual context. My partner believes in what is termed polyamory, the idea that love is boundless and borderless, and that people have an infinite capacity for love. Perhaps I am too much of a materialist (what if “love” is an illusion?), or perhaps I am too much of a selfish bastard (what if I am incapable of love?), or maybe I’m just allergic to labels, but I prefer to simply refer to myself as non-monogamous (rejecting more specific labels through its generality), despite the purity and beauty that I acknowledge in narratives of free-love or infinite love.
As one might presume, a lot of people have extremely polarized reactions to the idea of polyamory and there is no short supply of men who feel comforted by talking over any defense I may have for my lifestyle choices by repeating, “No, you just can’t love more than one person,” or women who cluck their tongues in pity for their belief that I am giving up my good years to a man who can’t commit, I who paint his insult in flowery language. Not surprisingly, there are reactionaries who, exhausted by the hegemonic onslaught of heteronormativity, decry monogamous couples as the single barrier to a pure victimless utopia. Many “polyamous” folk use vehement vilifying language that falls just short of equating a monogamous relationship with an abusive relationship and make little effort in hiding their disdain when meeting monogamous couples. Oftentimes, it seems very transparent that this reactionary propaganda is really nothing more sophisticated than masked jealousy. June wants in Betty’s pants, so June is going to blame the fact that she can’t have Betty on Betty’s monogamous relationship. Since I am sure that there is no “June” in existence who is attracted to every single person attracted her, she should certainly know better and my advice to several poly-folk who I’ve met over the years is to get over yourselves. Don’t be such a narcissistic brat. Even if Betty were single or otherwise available, that does not automatically mean that she would freak with you. So I personally find it very disgusting to openly talk down on someone’s life choices just because those life choices ostensibly mean you don’t get exactly what you want.
However, there are other poly-folk who decry monogamy because they simply can’t identify with it. There are plenty of poly-folk who will quote “Sex at Dawn” at you until they pass out, not because they want anything from you, other than for you to believe exactly like themselves, because many find it difficult to be friends with people who hold different views from themselves. The same way that many Bible-thumpers damn near faint at the sight of two grown men nuzzling each other in public, many poly-folk get equally riled up about monogamy. It is a blasphemy against the flesh they will say, it is a direct product of patriarchy they will say (though I definitely believe that patriarchal gender roles are more easily reinforced through monogamous narratives). Basically, why do some of the same people who perfectly understand that homosexuality doesn’t affect heterosexual people act completely offended and oppressed by OTHER monogamous people? Believe me, I am just as confused as you are.
However, I must [relent] and admit that monogamous folk are more likely to decry polyamory than the other way around. And as a woman, it is exhausting to go out in the social realm, wanting to be transparent and upfront about who I am because I see no shame in it, when the bulk of the male population can only view a woman’s poly identity as a glorified slut banner, thereby justifying disgusting forward advances that they would never dream of making on their non-taboo counterparts (“Do you want to fuck?”) at which I must be equally upfront (“Sorry, I’m not interested in you that way.”) That’s partly why I find it best to stay away from the labels–because I don’t want to sugar-coat ANY of it. I could call myself polyamorous, but that might imply that I find every single person I’ve ever lusted after loveable (hey, despite my hippie trappings, I’m just a person, too)–the same way that I don’t like to dance around my emotions or other people’s emotions. It’s not “you’re super attractive, but I’ve got my hands full with too many lovers,” it’s definitely “I am not interested in sex with you.” No white lies, no qualifying. If someone is stupid enough to believe that you either freak with one person or everyone, then they get no mercy from me.
So obviously, I don’t believe that monogamy is for everyone, but I certainly don’t believe that non-monogamy is for everyone either. People talk about testosterone and the role it plays in male infidelity–and other gender-centered cultural beliefs–and those claims may have their truths, but I don’t entertain the idea that it’s remotely possible to make cohesive generalizations about sexuality and gender. Sure, there may be patterns in the scientific data, but those patterns aren’t significant enough for people to reference them as often as they do. Obviously that is how women’s lib and feminism got its footing; there was a sizable demographic of women who felt very disserviced by the status quo. So why should we say that women deep down seek monogamy whereas men deep down seek sexual freedom?
Anyway, part of why I wanted to write this post was because I have a lot of friends who say they just couldn’t do an open-relationship. They say that they don’t know how they would deal with the jealousy or if they could deal. Others hold the misconception that you have to be incapable of jealousy to be fit for the endeavor. I’m not really ever sure what to say to these friends because there are a lot of blogs and books dedicated to polyamory, how to be a good partner in such an arrangement, how to be a bad partner, how to know if it’s even right for you and to be honest I feel that 95% of what’s out there is total bullshit. These writers all make lists of rules as if they were singlehandedly given the authority to write the ten commandments of polyamory. Some of it seems to suggest that it’s okay to guilt your partner if they’re feeling at all jealous. Some of it seems to suggest that all boundaries in a relationship are wrong and a form of possessiveness. Some of it seems to suggest that commitment is a form of possessiveness. Basically, it makes me wonder how half the poly-folk out there maintain any romantic relationships at all and how it’s not just one big casual free-for-all, because after reading some of these blogs, it would seem that polyamory could be equated with an anti-relationship state of mind.
But somehow, despite all this talk-talk-talk, talk against boundaries, talk against monogamy, talk against jealousy, you name it, I know a surprisingly large amount of poly-folk in what appears to be happy, loving long-term relationships. These are people who babysit their partner’s partner’s children (and no, we are not talking about polygamy here), people who help each other with errands and homework, people who cook dinner together, people who do just about all the things for each other a married couple would do, except most of them don’t live together and relative sexual freedom is always part of the equation. And poly-folk get jealous just like the rest of anybody else. They talk to other poly-folk about their mixed feelings, they talk to their partner about their concerns in the relationship, they talk themselves into honoring their partner’s carnal freedoms because they too covet their freedom to love/lust.
So if there is some quiz or checklist out there that claims to determine whether polyamory is right for you, I am very skeptical as to its efficacy. I think that if you desire sexual freedom, then you were probably meant to be some form of non-monogamous. However, your maturity level and the maturity of your partner and many cultural factors are what really determine whether it will work in the long-term or not. If you are a very loving, generous, and understanding person, but your partner is a brat, then you will feel burned by polyamory and potentially end up being one of those who decry non-monogamy and promiscuity in every form. If you are with someone whom you love as a friend, but the sex fizzles and you are fucking everyone BUT your committed partner, then you are the selfish brat that doesn’t know how to compassionately end a relationship, and they will end up feeling burned by polyamory.
My advice is that if you desire more sexual freedom in relationships, keep trying, because it is not wrong to want both freedom and commitment and neither is it impossible. The way that you try is by being the most compassionate, loving, and honest version of yourself as possible. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and ask them to do the same. It is very human to simultaneously desire freedom for oneself but feel jealous when a loved one exercises their own freedom, but it’s how you reconcile this paradox that matters. Guilting your partner for when they express jealousy or concern over your involvement with another is not only dishonest but alienating because it can send the message that you do not empathize with your partner’s very human emotions. People try to control others because they feel jealous and not the other way around. Very few people specifically WANT to control others. Jealousy happens because people fret about the future–“will s/he eventually leave me for this new person?”–which is completely valid. If you know that you are committed and no one can take you away from your partner, then instead of calling treachery, go out of your way to show them that they are special and loved. Within reason. A partner’s fantasies of possession or monogamy cannot be indulged if you have decided for certain that you yourself are to be non-monogs. After all, you cannot choose the path that others may take–s/he may leave the relationship for monogamy, which is their prerogative–but it is your responsibility to be upfront about who you are and what you want (if you are not ready for a commitment, be strong and don’t string anyone along for the sheer comfort of the familiarity or flattery that comes with a long-term relationship). Basically, many of the same rules that help make monogamous relationships work go a long way in poly/non-monog relationships as well. It’s just that maybe there is more potential for heartbreak because there is more potential for romance, for you and your partner.
I will have more to say on this subject in the future, but I mainly just wanted to make a post about non-monogamy based on recent conversations I’ve had with friends, monog and non-monog friends. I wanted to send out my sentiments that NONE of it is cut-and-dry–whether you’re trying to determine if you could even handle a serious non-monogamous relationship, or whether you’re in the midst of trying to navigate your romantic style or the inner-workings of a current relationship. I also wanted to say that you shouldn’t allow anyone to define who you are and what is right for you. Just because you desire a relative amount of sexual freedom, it does not mean that you view your sex life as a free-for-all and shun commitment. Just because you love one person, it does not mean that you are not strong enough to simultaneously love another. If you want to be with only one person, do not allow your queer radical buddies to bully you into opening a relationship that you are already satisfied in. Just because you consider yourself polyamorous, it does not mean that you are not allowed to prioritize certain relationships or set healthy boundaries. It also does not mean that you have to prioritize certain relationships. My partner does not ask that I prioritize my relationship with him, but I do ask that he prioritizes our relationship and we have found ways to make it work for both of us because we both want to be together.
I think that there are always very ethical and loving ways to be the person that you were meant to be, even if that person is considered taboo by the status quo, and I strongly believe that we were not all born with identical needs. It may take time and lots of heartbreak to find your soulmate(s) and sometimes the most beautiful romances are meant to be short and sweet, but be honest, compassionate, and buoyant and your rewards will be great.