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

Posts tagged ‘monogamy’

Shades of Past Lovers: or, what I learned from my wacko fundamentalist past

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.

How we got here

Having now read all of Sex at Dawn, I’m going to tell you why I think it’s an important book.

It’s not important because it tells us something we didn’t already know. There’s no new research (as far as I can tell), and it doesn’t question common understandings of the way we are today. Its interest is in how we got here. One could claim that its basic message is trivial: that the confused sexual structure we currently live in (ideals of monogamy but frequent rule-breaking and temptation) is the product not of our evolutionary roots as a species, but of adaptations to the changed environment we created with agriculture. That’s it. “We are the way we are because of something that happened 10,000 years ago, not because of something that happened 200,000 years ago.” That’s the basic message, and one might be justified in asking, “So what?”

I’ll tell you so what. When an evolutionary psychologist says that strict monogamy is not natural to humans (and they pretty much all say that), someone usually responds, “Yes, but we have free will; we can choose to rise above our animal nature.” Now that’s a debatable point, largely depending on your definitions of “free will” and “animal nature,” but let’s set aside that question for now. A more pertinent reply to the “we can rise above our animal nature” argument is, “Maybe, but why should we?”

The standard evolutionary-psychology model, which I outlined ever so loosely here, frames nonmonogamy for both males and females as, quite literally, cheating. There’s a mutually beneficial arrangement (monogamy) to which both parties agree, but they can do even better in the grand genetic steeplechase by cheating on the agreement. It’s not pretty, but hey, red in tooth and claw. If this is the best account of the monogamy/nonmonogamy tension in society, then people have some justification for calling on us all to rise above it. We owe it to our partners to put aside our selfish urges toward outside gratification, and to devote ourselves to maintaining the pair-bond we’ve formed. If they really love us, they’ll do the same. That’s the narrative we’re often given.

Sex at Dawn takes that narrow perspective and splits it wide open, suggesting many more possibilities for human sexual behavior that are cooperative, loving, and beneficial to everybody involved. The narrative it offers goes like this: Humans evolved in small, egalitarian, hunter-gatherer communities where men and women both benefited from frequent, free, promiscuous sexual encounters. Paternity wasn’t an issue because nobody was hoarding resources to pass on to their children, and securing male providership wasn’t an issue because women were gathering the bulk of the food anyway. When we developed agriculture, suddenly it became advantageous to accumulate land and livestock, and to pass these on to your own genetic offspring. So men became concerned with controlling women’s sexual behavior. At the same time, being the bearers and nursers of children became much more incapacitating for two reasons: farming is more labor-intensive than foraging, and with property comes theft and territory conflict. So women had a much greater need for men to provide for and defend them.

At this point the narrative converges with the conventional model. Male sexual infidelity doesn’t hurt women that much (from an evolutionary perspective) since sperm is cheap and plentiful. The woman is concerned more with making sure that he continues to provide material support and defense for herself and her children. Hence, “emotional infidelity” is more of a threat to women. Polygamy works out okay for both men and women (again, from an evolutionary perspective), so a lot of societies do that for a while. Then we become more enlightened. We start to see the harm in oppressive patriarchy, the injustice of viewing women as property, and we work to correct the situation. But by this time the ideal of female sexual fidelity has become deeply engrained in our cultural morality; sexual jealousy in men has gained a strong memetic, and possibly genetic, foothold. We know the polygamous patriarchy is unfair, but allowing women sexual freedom feels “wrong.” (We’ve also, in our efforts to control female sexuality, repressed and denied it for long enough that it’s easy to believe that women wouldn’t really want, or benefit from, sexual freedom even if we gave it to them.)

There’s a parallel line of development around the “family.” Human beings need each other, need to exist in a small, interdependent network of other human beings, where regardless of how much they like or dislike one another, each one assumes some responsibility for the well-being of the others. In small hunter-gatherer tribes, the entire tribe can function as a family in many ways. Children are mothered and fathered by many adults; resources brought into the group are shared evenly with everybody. The bond each person has with their neighbors goes far beyond emotional affinity: they bear a responsibility to care for one another despite any conflicts or personality clashes.

With the advent of agriculture, territory, and a protected paternal line, this circle of familial interdependence was reduced to the immediate blood family: parents, children, grandparents. It’s been that way for so long that we’ve come to consider that kind of devoted interdependence as a unique feature of blood family relationships, and to consider other groups that have that quality (military units, for example) as an exception to the rule.

So we as a culture have talked ourselves out of believing that women want or should have sexual freedom, and into believing that the nuclear family is somehow sacred in the kind of bonds it creates. Which means that the obvious answer to the “polygamy is unfair, women aren’t property” realization is prescribed monogamy for everyone. If women shouldn’t sleep around, then clearly sleeping around in general is wrong. If the nuclear family is the source of familial love and bondedness, then we should protect and encourage it. Hence: monogamy. Now we’re expected to fall in love with someone whose lifestyle and personality will be compatible with ours in the long run, marry them, and make that our one sexual and romantic relationship.

It’s not working all that well; anybody with eyes to see can see that. Infidelity’s one problem, but even the honorable, conscientious folks typically engage in serial monogamy, and lots of it. The age of marriage and the divorce rate have both grown tremendously. Basically, we’re really just not all that good at monogamy. Religious conservatives will tell you that it’s not working because we’re letting our fallen sinful nature get the better of us. Evolutionary psychologists in the classic vein will tell us… actually pretty much the same thing, only with a secular story behind it instead of the religious one. The writers of Sex at Dawn suggest that maybe there’s nothing specially virtuous about monogamy; maybe the fact that we suck at it doesn’t mean we’re doomed as a species. Maybe there are other ways of being, ways that still allow for love and intimacy and deep concern for the people we’re closest to.

I think that’s a damn important message.

Negotiated fidelity

I finished reading Sex at Dawn, and I’ll have plenty more to say about it. The last chapter was mostly about application to modern life, and this post is taken partly from that and partly from my own thoughts and observations.

As a culture, we need to get rid of the idea that sexual exclusivity should come easily and naturally if a person “truly loves” their partner. Sometimes, for some people, deep love comes with a lack of any interest in other potential partners, but this is more likely to be true in the short term than in the long term, and should never be taken as a litmus test.

Whether a given couple should attempt sexual exclusivity is for them to decide, and ideally it should be decided after long, exhaustively honest conversations, and should be periodically revisited. Men and women both experience hormonal changes as they age, and are likely to find themselves feeling differently about ideal sexual behavior at different times in their lives.

In short, what I’m advocating for every committed couple is negotiated fidelity: a relationship where both partners can present their wants, needs, feelings, and fears on an ongoing basis, without either one feeling that the bedrock of their relationship is threatened if one of those feelings is something like, “I really like the idea of having sex with that barista.” It requires a lot of trust and security, a lot of willingness to delve into one’s own feelings and struggles, a lot of uncritical openness with oneself and one’s partner. If either party is feeling like they have to continually repress certain feelings to make the relationship work, then it is a bad relationship.

Repression is not the same as self-control. There is a huge difference between, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will refrain from having sex with others,” and saying, “My partner wants me to be sexually exclusive, so I will hide from myself and from my partner any inkling of a thought that I might be interested in having sex with others.” And, to be even-handed, there’s a difference between saying, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will work to get more comfortable with their interest in other people,” and, “My partner wants an open relationship, so I will deny and suppress any feelings of jealousy and insecurity I experience.” In both cases, the former statement is an expression of self-control exercised to accommodate a partner’s needs; the latter is a repression that will only cause damage, both to the individual and to the relationship.

Negotiated fidelity. Give it a try.

monogamy vs. fidelity

I was going to title this post “monogamy vs. commitment,” but “commitment” is kind of a cold word, and what I’m talking about is warm and vital. Fidelity, faithfulness… there’s a fire under those words. Commitment allows for a certain doggedness, a certain “because I have to” quality. You can be committed to a job or a diet. You can only be faithful to a cause, a passion, a love.

You can be faithful without being monogamous.

It’s so evident to me that this is so, that there’s no necessary connection between the concepts, that I almost don’t know what else to write. But let me try to spin it out further.

“My lover and I are faithful to each other.” What does that mean?

It means that your lover’s needs and wishes affect your behavior even when your lover is nowhere near. You think about how an action will impact them, whether it will enhance or impede your ability to love them. You give the whole question “will this strengthen or damage our relationship?” far more weight and prevalence in your life than you would give the same question asked of your close friends, or parents, or siblings.

I hope it need not be said that the question whether a certain action will strengthen or damage a relationship may have very different answers for different relationships. To take a non-sexual example: religious faith. For some couples, their shared religious faith (or lack thereof) is one of the pillars of their relationship, and a move away from that shared ground threatens the relationship. For others, it’s not that important; difference in their beliefs may fuel some interesting debates from time to time, but it doesn’t have much more impact than, say, one person loving musicals while the other hates them.

Similarly, for one couple sexual exclusivity might be a cornerstone of their relationship, while for another it’s not even expected. Definitions of fidelity vary widely from couple to couple. Some people feel cheated on if their partner masturbates or looks at porn (way over on the “unreasonable” end of the spectrum, in my opinion.) In the greyer areas, you have things like going to strip clubs… flirting with other people… getting cyber-married in Second Life. And the all the way over on the “laying no claim to monogamy” side of the spectrum you have swinging, relationships open to outside flings, and polyamory.

You can be faithful anywhere along this spectrum, as long as you and your lover have a sound understanding of what you each need from the other, and how your romantic and sexual activities will affect them. Your place on the spectrum is not likely to be static — I don’t think it should be. People grow, relationships grow, life circumstances change. It’s healthy to continually evaluate your wants and needs and the reasons behind them. Regardless of what boundaries you mutually agree on, it’s not exclusivity that makes a relationship secure — it’s fidelity.

What is monogamy?

I’ve had some conversations lately — I feel like every blog post I write could start that way — with self-identified “monogamous” people, and they’ve left me wondering: what is this  “monogamy” they’re talking about? I also had one conversation with Shaun, my very dear oh-so-poly boy, and it became clear (after much warm debate) that we were using very different definitions of “monogamy” and “polyamory.”

So, people who identify as monogamous, tell me what that means to you. I’ll get you started with a few ideas.

1) It means I hate the thought of my partner sharing sexual or romantic intimacy with another person. The idea of it gives me an awful feeling, and if it ever really happened I would be devastated. (If your answer is something like, “I don’t mind sharing a partner sexually, but I don’t want them to share romantic intimacy with anyone else” then can you please define “romantic intimacy”? Because it seems to be a concept that means something to people, but I really don’t know what.)

2) It means I can’t imagine giving sexual or romantic attention to more than one person. When I’m in love with someone, I’m blind to all other potential interests.

3) It means that even though I’m occasionally attracted to other people, I don’t want to assume the risks and possible costs of developing those relationships. I’d rather focus my time and energy on my single relationship.

4) It means that one of the most important things about a relationship to me is knowing we both come home to each other at the end of the day, every day. I want one person to be at the center of my life and my plans, and I want to know that I’m at the center of theirs.

Do any of these ring true? More than one? Do they capture the whole story or is there something I’m missing? I’m just curious about what monogamy means to people who choose it.

a different mono/poly dialogue

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.