This is part 1 of a possibly one-part series (I’m notoriously bad at follow-through) on “Things even monogamous people can learn from polyamory.”
We’re going to talk for a minute about serial monogamy vs. absolute monogamy. It’s something a lot of people don’t think about, because a lot of people don’t even contemplate absolute monogamy. I grew up in a nice little conservative religious community, so I did; in fact I planned on it. I bought into the “courtship” model and read all of Josh Harris’s books. I thought that if I was going to have only one lover in the course of my life, I should really have only one lover: no boyfriends, no passionate but doomed affairs. Even if I never had sex with a previous boyfriend, the emotional entanglement would taint my future relationship. I would be giving my future husband a heart that had already been passed around a few times. It sounds ridiculous, but I was sixteen and a romantic. I wanted to save love, intimacy, and sex for one man and one man only.
Ah, if I could see me now.
What I’ve learned since, of course, is that that whole story is a fairy tale. I got over the extreme version of it by the time I was nineteen. But I was still troubled by the pattern of serial monogamy. I don’t let people go easily: if I’ve loved someone once, I love them forever. A new lover might get all of my current attention and my future dreams, but the new relationship doesn’t erase the connection with the old lover. There are precious memories and specific joys I shared with that person that I can’t share with anyone else. In that respect, the Josh Harris ideology was quite correct. My past relationships form a part of who I am, for better or for worse. The emotional ties that ran between me and my former lover don’t just dissolve; I feel differently about them than I do about a friend or acquaintance I’ve never been intimate with.
I don’t know why I was so sure that this was a bad thing. I guess it was part of the “one true love” idealism, so persistently displayed for me in stories, and reinforced by the ridiculously functional marriage of my ridiculously functional parents, neither of whom (as far as I’m aware) had any significant exes. I just thought it would be better that way, better to avoid the complications and possible confusion of having to acknowledge my profound love for one person then, and my equally profound love for a different person now. Better to just have the one lover for past, present, and future. Much simpler that way.
Well, now… how can I put this delicately?…
Fuck that shit.
Simpler is for babies. We repackage the world into simple truths in order to give children some sense of orientation, some sense that they can cope with reality — a reality which, they will eventually discover, is hella complicated. “Love” is not this discrete feeling, identifiable in a lab; it’s a mishmash of emotional and physical responses to someone, layered on top of past experiences and future expectations. It’s a useful category, but if we make the mistake of thinking it’s something simple, we are going to miss out on what reality has to offer us. And what reality has to offer us is a whole array of kinds of love, degrees of love, moments of feeling profound love for someone you’ve barely met and will never see again (Christian of Berlin, I’m looking at you), old loves that reach from the past to enrich our lives (and, yes, sometimes confuse them), new loves that open wide new vistas of possibility to us. Reality, real life, grownup life, is carving your twisted path through all these different manifestations of love, steering as best you can according to what seems most important to you, but always, always, with gratitude and rejoicing at the different loves that are available to you. Because love, my friends, is one of the great beauties of this human life, and if we hide from it or try to compartmentalize it out of existence, we impoverish ourselves.
So. I started off saying this was something that monogamous people could learn from polyamory, but for me it happened the other way around. Coming to terms with the “consequences” of serial monogamy, i.e. having more than one lover in my world, (even if all but one of them were officially retired), made it easy for me to accept polyamory. But serial monogamists (yeesh! Written like that, sounds like I’m talking about some kind of sociopath, doesn’t it? I really don’t mean it that way… some of my best friends are serial monogamists, honest! … um, let’s try this again.) Serial monogamists People who date one person at a time can benefit from recognizing the truths that poly folk have to come to terms with very quickly: love is complicated, love is many-faceted, and the intensity of your feelings for one lover (even if they’re in the past) does not detract from your feelings for another. Instead of trying to deny the feelings you had for a previous lover, let them exist as part of your sense of who you are. In some way, they helped get you here, and if they have some role to play in your current and future life, that’s not a disaster. And extend the same grace, the same confident understanding, to your lover’s exes. They’re probably only a threat if you make them one.