sex, love, and relationships for those of us who don't quite follow the rules

I was reading pretty much everything Franklin Veaux has to say about BDSM and polyamory, and liking almost all of it. When I got to this article, though, I found myself so annoyed I had to immediately email my best friend Charis. Charis is the person I first heard about polyamory from; an ex-girlfriend of hers is poly, which is primarily why they broke up. From this, you may infer that Charis is pretty solidly monogamous, and so I wanted to hear her perspective on the monogamous girl whose voice appears in the above-linked article. I thought Ms. Mono was being fairly obtuse, but I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just my poly-goggles making me see things that way.

Char responded, as she does, with wit and eloquence, and I want to share some of what she said. With all due respect to Franklin Veaux and his monogamous friend (and, if I didn’t make it clear before, I think the rest of the writing on his site is solid and insightful), I find this a much more satisfactory mono/poly dialogue.

(Char’s writing in brown, mine in black.)

When A and I first started talking about being poly, I pulled out the usual, predictable list of concerns: “Human beings weren’t meant to live that way” (meant by whom?  I’m not entirely sure.  Never mind that most species of animals aren’t monogamous); “I’ll get diseases from you;” “If you love someone else, then you can’t love me as much;” etc.  Now, after watching A and others be in several successful poly relationships, I can rationalize most of those concerns away.  But I’m still uncomfortable with polyamory (as it concerns myself and my own relationships, just to be clear) on a gut level.  I have none of the concerns I see Ms. Mono voicing in this debate.  All of her concerns seemed to be rooted in (a) a misunderstanding of mature polyamory; and (b) a fundamental discomfort with polyamory that she is desperately trying to rationalize.  My read is that she feels threatened on a very deep, gut level by the thought of “sharing” a lover.  All of her “arguments” against polyamory seem to be a way of legitimizing these feelings.  I think I’ve moved past the need to rationalize my discomfort with polyamory.  But I think the feelings of discomfort need to be interrogated, especially at first.  It was important for me to ask myself, “Is my discomfort with the poly lifestyle simply a result of social conditioning in a culture that is invested in monogamy?”  There was an extent to which the answer to that question was “Yes.”  So I allowed my conception of, and attitude toward, polyamory to be transformed by open-minded conversations with poly friends.  I worked hard to suspend my judgment about polyamory as far as possible (which is something that Ms. Mono CLEARLY has not done).  This suspension was enabled by my own subject position as queer in a culture that loves to delegitimize the queer experience.  People love to tell me that my deeply-rooted same-sex attraction isn’t “real” or “natural.”  I wanted to be careful not to do the same thing to the experiences of my poly friends.

After I opened myself up as far as possible to the validity of the poly experience and came to understand what mature poly relationships looked like, I still got a knot in my stomach when I thought about being in a poly relationship with someone I deeply loved.  My reaction to that “fantasy” is immediate and visceral: I feel a little sick and want to cry.  Why?  I’m not really sure.  It’s not a trust issue.  It’s not a privacy issue.  I also don’t feel the need to be the most important person in my lover’s life (“top dog,” to quote Ms. Mono’s juvenile phrasing).  I embrace the fact that I can’t be everything to another person.  I want the person I’m with to have lots of love in her life from lots of different people, as I desire to have lots of love in mine, coming from many different relationships.  But there is a kind of intense emotional and sexual connection that I can only healthily share with one person at a time.  I can be in love with multiple people at once.  I’ve had sexual relationships with more than one person at a time.  But I can’t nurture and commit to love with more than one person without a great deal of stress.  And I can’t give you good reasons why.  The feelings cannot be rationalized.  And you know what?  They don’t have to be.  The fact that I’m monogamous is true about me.  This is not something I’ve always known.  I’ve only really known it recently, after divesting myself of prejudice toward other kinds of relationships and trying to be aware of the raw, fundamental needs at my core.  My core tells me that I need to be committed to one person, because that’s what’s going to make me really happy.  And that’s enough.

I think this is so, so important. If you’re going to negotiate tough, controversial, culturally marginal territory, you have two choices: use cultural prejudices to back up your knee-jerk response, or try to move outside of those cultural prejudices and think about how they could be wrong. If you’re listening to someone describe a lifestyle that makes no sense to you, that seems wrong and perverse and unhealthy, it’s far more productive, more conducive to your own growth and to a good relationship, for you to weed out all that’s weak and illogical in your own position. Try to see the other person as a fully-developed, functional human being, and imagine how the things they’re describing could be part of a fully-developed, functional human identity, instead of a perversion or aberration.

This is not to say there can’t be boundaries. There are acts, inclinations, and lifestyles that I won’t hesitate to call “wrong.” But before I do that, I’m going to think through why I call them wrong, whether that’s consistent with other beliefs I hold, and make sure that my judgement rests on fairly solid ground.

Another boundary, even harder to defend, is subjective need. Charis has had a long, hard slog through the last decade of her life, and one thing she’s learned is that it’s okay to need what she needs. You don’t need to declare something wrong or perverse to say that it’s not for you. I really admire Char’s ability to say, “I don’t want to be polyamorous, and I don’t need to rationalize that.”

Ms. Mono’s objections to polyamory are pretty unfair, because she’s working from a “straw man” conception of poly relationships.  She is then juxtaposing this unattractive “straw man” with what she sees as the “ideal” monogamous relationship.  Most mono relationships are not even close to the kind of relationship she’s describing.  They are fraught with selfishness, miscommunication, lack of trust, cheating, lying, etc.  Most people do monogamy pretty badly.  Just because you’re mono doesn’t mean that your partner will respect your privacy.  Just because you’re mono doesn’t mean you’ll be “top dog” and get the attention you feel like you need.  Just because you’re mono doesn’t mean your relationship won’t be fraught with complications and conflicts of interest.  It’s dangerous to invest one particular relationship model with the power to fulfill all your hopes and dreams.  Beyond judging relationship “models,” I think that what make a particular relationship “superior” has nothing to do with it’s mono or poly character.  What makes a relationship “better” is the ability of all parties involved to honestly communicate their needs and wants, and then negotiate/compromise with their partner(s) for the fulfillment of those relational needs.  It’s about investing in each other’s lives in a way that is life-giving and that facilitates the spiritual growth of all parties (I’m using the word “spiritual” here quite loosely).  Of course, I think this is a worthy goal for many kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones.

Word. Inevitably, in any kind of lifestyle outside of the mainstream, problems get blamed on the lifestyle structures, whereas the same kinds of problems in a mainstream lifestyle are chalked up to “well, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.” When a gay couple breaks up, it’s because gayness is unnatural and doomed to failure; when a hetero couple breaks up, well, that just happens sometimes.

It’s important to realize that, in a way, we’re all polyamorous.  The poly lifestyle isn’t as “weird” and “unconventional” as people like to pretend it is.  I don’t have “one love.”  I have many loves.  I know better than to count on one person for the fulfillment of all my needs.  It’s simply not possible.  This is where I think mono relationships tend to go wrong.  Like I said earlier, one person can’t be everything to you.  Long term, I don’t want to share my bed or intimate romance with more than one person.  But that doesn’t mean I won’t be sharing my heart with many, many important people who are irreplaceable in my life.

This is my favorite part of her email. It was during my senior year of college, a time when I was experiencing intense love for a number of people (most of them non-romantic, although that line has always been fuzzy for me), that I established the emotional habits that I think have enabled me to move so comfortably into a poly relationship. Letting go of the need to be everything to someone, realizing that my love for each of these people was unique and non-competitive, seeing how intimacy between my close friends enriched me… I learned these things in intense friendships first, and carrying them into my romantic life was (for me) quite natural.

My part in this “dialogue” is actually pretty weak, and seems to have mostly consisted of saying, “Hear, hear!” But I do have one thing to add: it can be very, very hard for people on one side of a question like this to really get that other people just feel differently. Reading poly message boards and the like, I hear some people talking as if all mono people have to do is work through their insecurities
and then they could be happy poly people too. It’s pretty clear to me that this is not the case. It’s sometimes hard for a poly person to look at a mono without seeing insecurity and possessiveness, just as it’s sometimes hard for a mono to look at a poly without seeing greed and lack of self-control. This is where my earlier stricture comes in: assume, until shown otherwise, that the person you’re talking to is intelligent, healthy, and mature. If doing so requires you to question some of your assumptions about what intelligent, healthy, mature people do, so much the better. If it turns out they’re actually stupid, self-destructive, and childish, and your assumptions withstand the challenge, you’ve still gained something by trading in unthinking assumptions for thought-out beliefs.

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Comments on: "a different mono/poly dialogue" (7)

  1. I read this a couple of days ago and have been thinking about this very issue for years. There are, indeed, times when I feel like monogamous people are just afraid and unable to be honest with the fact that they could be poly if they wanted to. I feel like they don’t want to do the work, out of fear or laziness, to challenge their comfortable worldview.

    Then again, I feel that way about theists too, but that’s a different subject.

    I attempted monogamy for a fair amount of my life, and found it to be good in many ways, but ultimately unnaturally restricting. That is, I felt like the choice to be with just one person was forced, arbitrary, and unnatural in the long run. This is not to say that for some time, say a few months of even a year or so, I could not be completely happy with just one person, but that when we think about grander scales of time the idea becomes more and more ludicrous. Why would a person decide to be with one person for the rest of their lives? What happens if they meet someone amazing again in 5 years, 10 years, 20 years?

    Why do people deny themselves a relationship that could be amazing just because of some monogamous arrangement made years (or months) before? Why repress or ignore the feelings you have for other people when in a relationship? For the sake of the other person? If they really loved you and you had an honest relationship, shouldn’t they already know about the fact that you are struggling with feelings for other people? And if not, then how is that healthy?

    If someone is happy being monogamous, then I have no argument. But how often do people find themselves denied a (potentially) beautiful relationship because they are already in one? Why is monogamy the default? Why not just be with those whom you love and whom love you (and with whom the relationship works) and if that ends up being one person all your life then fine, and if it ends up being many more, then fine as well?

    The discussion between mono and poly people should be about whether people have all they want in life from their relationships. And if not, what else do they want and why the arbitrary arrangement of being with one person sexually/romantically?

    Any person who cannot share their lover with someone else who genuinely loves them has a fundamental insecurity, fear, etc. There simply is not, as far as I can see, any other way to see this. If a person is comfortable being fearful and insecure, then by all means be monogamous. Personally, I believe that people need to challenge themselves, their fears, and their worldviews to grow as adults. Those who do not will perpetually be subject to those fears and insecurities. I have little respect for that, and find rationalizations of those fears to be silly.

  2. I agree with some of what you’ve said, but it’s not that simple. While the “why deny/repress feelings and rule out another, potentially beautiful, relationship” argument carries a lot that’s at the heart of the decision to be polyamorous, it’s not the whole question. It’s a tired catchphrase in the poly world, but here you go: “love is limitless; time and attention are not.” There’s a cost/benefit analysis to be made any time you enter a new relationship, and that doesn’t change whether you started out with zero partners, one, two, or seven.

    At some point, every person is going to reach maximum capacity for intimate relationships. You may be able to have brief, distant, or sporadic connections with other people, but if your limit is two full-time lovers, then meeting somebody else who you’d like to have in that role means making a decision: leave one or both of your current lovers for the new person, or deny yourself that potential new relationship.

    There may be a difference in freedom to express your feelings for a new person, whether or not you decide to pursue them. Even if you and I were going to be functionally monogamous, I would not want to do without the level of honesty that we enjoy by being free to talk about our feelings for other people. This is the main area where I feel polyamory is unilaterally superior to monogamy (as it’s usually practiced.) Regardless of whether you’re open to another relationship, currently or ever, I think it’s harmful to have to pretend that you only have eyes for your partner. (Now, if you actually do only have eyes for your partner, that’s fine… as long as you don’t take that to mean you love them “more” than someone who’s able to develop outside interests.)

    Your last paragraph goes too far, unless you’re talking about close friendships as well as lovers. Certainly any person who wants to be their partner’s whole world, who doesn’t want them to have any other intimate relationships, has some problems. But wanting to be your partner’s only lover is not unreasonable, for those inclined that way. It is perfectly possible to challenge your worldviews, your fears, and your insecurities around the idea of sharing a lover, come to terms with all of those, and still decide that you prefer monogamy. Charis describes a little bit of her process of doing this above, and I trust it because I know her pretty well. Just because you and I have come to different conclusions doesn’t mean that all healthy and mature people must arrive at the same place we have.

  3. If you can find me a person who really just wants to be with one other person, and that other person really just wants to be with them, then I have no quarrel with either of them. But that is not assuming or choosing monogamy, that’s just finding it by accident of circumstance. I just don’t think that monogamy should be the goal. If it ends up being the destination, then fine. I also don’t think polyamory should be the goal, but I think that many people’s natural inclinations will lead them in this direction, if they are up for the challenge.

  4. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why I prefer the idea of monogamy, and something Ian said was rather enlightening. What he said about the possibility of meeting someone else made sense, but in my (very limited) experience that doesn’t happen to me. For every attraction I’ve ever had, I haven’t had any serious attraction to anyone else until the first attraction had faded. When I was ten or eleven, I liked a guy who liked me back, and we had a sort of unofficial boyfriend/girlfriend-like thing for two years. I can’t recall finding a single guy attractive until after he told me he didn’t like me anymore. I remember a crush on Frodo, and that’s about it. After we’d “broken up” I started liking another guy, and the interesting thing is I’d known him the whole time I was in this preteen quasi-relationship. During the relationship he was just a friend with odd hair, after the relationship he was attractive. Over the next six years of crushes, I can remember exactly three times when I liked one guy, and started to find a second guy attractive. Each time, the attraction came after the guy I originally liked had been uninterested in me for months. I can’t recall any time that I’ve been attracted to one person, they’ve been acting in a way that makes me feel loved and happy/hopeful about a potential relationship, and I’ve felt attraction to a second person. Based on that, if I was in a relationship with Person A, and I felt an attraction to Person B that went anywhere beyond “oh, you’re cute,” my first thought would be that there’s something deficient in my relationship with Person A, causing me to look elsewhere for affection.

    I don’t think that’s true of polyamorous people. I think poly people are wired differently. They have some neurological ability to relationally multitask that I don’t have. If you can be attracted to two people, without those attractions influencing each other, it makes no sense to ignore awesome person B just because you’re in a relationship with awesome person A. If you are hardly ever attracted to more than one person, and you never find two people equally attractive, monogamy makes sense.

    Perhaps that’s part of why monogamous people have such a gut reaction against polyamory. “I only fall in love with one person at a time, therefore my lover only falls in love with one person at a time, therefore if my lover is polyamorous it means they don’t really love me. Aaaaaah!” Cultural norms make monogamous people feel that attitude is justified, when really its just extrapolating their own experience onto someone else without testing that assumption.

    I think people who are successfully monogamous are probably genuinely wired for monogamy, because otherwise, well, they wouldn’t be successful. I do think that many people who struggle with monogamy probably are wired for polyamory and are just ignoring it because of cultural norms and default assumptions and so on, which sucks.

  5. OK,, understood.

    Have you considered the possibility that the reason you don’t find other people attractive while with someone is that you have an unconscious inability to allow yourself to think about being with them while in a relationship? See, in a culture where the ideal is to find that one person (“the One”), you don’t allow yourself to entertain the idea more than recognizing that they are cute, funny, etc.

    Personally, I have a good imagination, and I have always allowed my imagination to take me to places even if mainstream culture would look down on it if I did so out loud. I’ve always liked the quote “I consider nothing that is human alien to me,” which seems only to be possible to someone who allows themselves to not only think outside the box, but live outside of it.

    The idea that finding someone else attractive while in a relationship implying deficiency in the relationship is not quite alien to me, but it is as close to being alien as anything human.

  6. Yes, I have considered that, quite seriously. I agree with you; I don’t want to live my life based on what the mainstream tells me is normal. I like your phrase, “not only think outside the box, but live outside of it.” It sums up pretty well what I’ve been trying to do over these past few years.

    And no, I can’t conclusively say it wasn’t just mainstream brainwashing. Some beliefs I’ve had about what I want have turned out to be dead wrong. Others have changed over time. I’ve never been in an actual relationship, poly or mono, so I can’t say based on experience that one works for me and one doesn’t. All I’ve had is crushes and fantasies.

    That said, I find monogamy pretty darn appealing on a fantasy level. I’ve tried fantasizing about poly relationships. They just don’t produce the same happy tingly feelings in me, and I have no problems getting happy tingly feelings from other things the mainstream frowns on, like transgendered people and bondage. If I try the dating world, and find that I do experience equally strong attractions to multiple people, I won’t deny it, anymore than I would deny feelings for a girl.

  7. As I’ve thought about it more, I’m going to have to go with no, my lack of interest in polyamory isn’t due to an unconscious inability to defy the mainstream ideal of The One. I’ve suppressed desires before, so I know what it feels like. My love of body modification is an example. I grew up in mainstream conservative Christian culture, where body modification beyond one piercing in each earlobe was BAD. I’ve always liked hair dye, tattoos and piercings, but for a long time I didn’t let myself acknowledge I like them, because it was BAD. Then I let myself let go of the idea that it was BAD, and my real desire sprang into my conscious, yelling, “hey look, it’s me! I’ve been here all along. Can you stop repressing me please?” I complied, and now I have an awesome rooster tattoo and a streak of blue hair and five ear piercings and plans to modify further in the future.

    Letting go of “multiple partners is BAD” wasn’t accompanied by the same experience. That’s not to say I’ll necessarily never try poly, but there’s no desire for multiple partners right now, and as far as I can see there never has been.

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