Monthly Archives: April 2013

What’s so Bad About Monogamy? Nothing, Except When it’s Compulsory.

Over the years, one thing I’ve encountered many times is the accusation from (some) monogamous folks that poly people present ourselves as “more enlightened” and “smug.” There are bound to be some poly people who legitimately look down their noses at monogamous people, but the vast majority of us are not at all critical of monogamy itself. We’re critical of the institution of compulsory monogamy, the set of norms which present monogamy as the only possible option. Even in trying to clarify this, though, I’ve encountered defensive responses from some monogamous folks: “you’re implying all monogamous people are mindless sheep,” “I freely chose monogamy after considering all the options,” etc. Now, to be clear, I certainly don’t want to imply that anyone is mindless. But the reality is that society does circumscribe the choices we feel capable of making. That doesn’t mean we’re mindless, it means we’re human—social creatures who long for the acceptance of a larger community and are vulnerable to criticism and shame.

If a lot of poly people seem particularly bitter toward compulsory monogamy, and sometimes even toward monogamy itself, it’s probably because very few of us were able to identify and live polyamorously from a young age. Most of us spent years—often long, heartbreaking, damaging years—trying to force ourselves into a kind of relationship that was inauthentic for us. And yes, a lot of us have come out of that holding a bit of a grudge against compulsory monogamy.

I have always been polyamorous. As soon as I was old enough to have serious crushes, I had them on more than one person at a time. I ended some early relationships not because I stopped wanting to be with one guy, but because I started wanting to be with another and thought that was the only option. When I fell deeply in love and knew that I wanted to spend my life with someone, I never considered that could mean anything other than only that someone. The options were either: settle down and remain exclusively with this person you love, or have variety, but without long-term meaning and commitment and depth. I chose love. And I’ll spare you all the drawn-out details, but suffice it to say that I spent several years of marriage trying desperately to actually conform to monogamy. I knew that I loved my husband, that I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I thought that was supposed to just flip a switch to make you stop developing feelings for others, and it felt like something was broken in me when that didn’t happen. I hated myself, I wondered what was wrong with me. The only thing that prevented me from developing feelings for others was completely isolating myself from meeting new people, and that was just trading one misery for another. I contemplated affairs. I contemplated divorce. I contemplated suicide. Realizing I was polyamorous—that I had no choice to be anything but polyamorous—and beginning to actually live authentically to who I am was like opening up the curtains and letting all this sunlight in and seeing things clearly for the first time.

When I look back now on all those years of trying to force myself into contentment with monogamy, it seems absurd. Being happy, having a life that actually feels right, is so easy, and yet I was made to feel that it was impossible. As liberating it was to finally be myself, it was also infuriating to realize that I could have been happy all along if not for some artificial, repressive social structures. And yes, there are moments when that kind of realization does make you want to go up and shout from the rooftops: “look everyone! There’s another way!”

I know that monogamy is right for a lot of people. And I know that a fair amount of people actually are aware of alternatives, and still choose monogamy freely. That’s wonderful. I want all people to be able to live the lives that are right and meaningful for them. But I also know there are still countless people in the same place I was in, trying to force themselves into a role that doesn’t feel right and never will. Right now, there are people who are ending relationships they don’t want to end, or having affairs and hating themselves for it, or forcing themselves to follow the rules but feeling miserable and not understanding why. And I want those people to be able to be happy. I want them to know they can have a different life.

Monogamy, just like any other relationship structure, can be great. But compulsory monogamy, quite plainly, sucks. And just as one can be heterosexual and still hate the institution of compulsory heterosexuality, I hope that even monogamous folks can find it within themselves to sympathize and to understand why I’m not about to stop hating compulsory monogamy anytime soon.

Bisexuality as an Argument for Plural Marriage?

A few days ago, I stumbled on an article by Cary Tennis over at Salon arguing that bisexuality should be seen as an argument for plural marriage. He says “I am for maximum human freedom under the law. If being lesbian means one wants the right to be partners with women, and being gay means one wants the right to be partners with men, what does being bisexual mean if not that one wants the right to be partners with both sexes?”

Of course, there is a backlash to this, because many bisexual folks are offended by the suggestion that they’re incapable of monogamy (because unfortunately, in our society, being non-monogamous is something that one is “accused” of). To this, Tennis states “One can of course be bisexual and make the choice to marry monogamously. But must one? Why?”

As someone who’s long been interested in connecting the rights of poly folks with LGBTQ struggles, I find this argument tremendously interesting. But there are also some reasons why I find it worrisome.

I’ve definitely said in the past that bisexuality can be a compelling reason to engage in polyamory; while I totally recognize that many bi folks are perfectly capable of monogamy and don’t feel that their orientation manifests itself as a desire for two partners simultaneously, others do feel that they need both male and female partners to be completely fulfilled. And that should be embraced as a valid desire, not frowned upon as something that makes all bisexual people look bad or incapable of monogamy. I think what this comes down to, though, is not so much about bisexuality, but about the fact that some people—of all sexual orientations—are polyamorous, and others are not. When someone is both bi and poly, it only makes sense that they generally want to have both male and female partners. But in my mind, this desire is ultimately a feature of their poly-ness far more than their bisexuality.

I’m concerned that if we essentialize bisexuality as a “legitimate” argument for polyamory, we will find ourselves in a place where we only validate plural relationships that are bisexual in nature. Personally, I tend not to label my sexual orientation, because it feels too nuanced for any of the available labels. But “bisexual” would be the closest to accurate, if I was forced to choose one. And yet, my interest in potentially being in relationships with women was never a particularly driving force in my desire to live polyamorously. I’m in love with and deeply committed to two men, and I can easily conceive of a life in which I only had relationships with those men, but I cannot conceive of a life where I was forced to choose between them. Similarly, even most people I know who do feel that bisexuality was a strong factor in their desire for polyamory still want to be free to form relationships with people of both (or all) genders, not only people who are a different gender from their current partner. I’m sure that there are some people who feel that they specifically need one male and one female lover in order to be happy, nothing more and nothing less. But it seems that for the majority of us who for whatever reason feel compelled toward polyamory, we are far more interested in being able to form meaningful, loving relationships with multiple people in an organic and authentic way, which is not circumscribed by a rule that says “you can be involved with other women, but not other men.” If we argue for plural marriage on the basis of bisexuality, does that mean that we are arguing for plural marriage only in cases where one desires both a male and female spouse?

Tennis says that “It seems only logical that a bisexual person is capable of having equal and simultaneously deep, committed relationships with more than one person.” But why is it logical that all bisexual people are capable of this, and that no strictly heterosexual or homosexual people are? Being attracted to both men and women and being capable of deeply loving either a man or a woman says nothing about one’s capacity to deeply love two people simultaneously, and being capable of loving only men or only women does not mean that someone isn’t able to form simultaneous deep, committed relationships with more than one person. Again, to me this is a question far more of whether one is more “oriented” toward monogamy or polyamory, not a question of how many genders one sees as potential partners.

I am definitely interested in a stance that says bisexual people shouldn’t have to be limited to only one partner; even though many might make the choice to have only one partner, that should be their decision, not something forced upon them. But this is exactly the way I feel about all discussions of monogamy vs. polyamory, not only those which involve bisexuality. If we’re going to talk about maximum freedom under the law, then we need to give all people the ability to freely choose whether to be with one or more than one deeply committed partner, regardless of gender. If we actually recognize polyamory as a form of sexual orientation in its own right, we don’t need to rely on bisexuality as an inroad to validate polyamorous relationships. Regardless of the genders of their desired partners, some people simply are polyamorous. To me, that’s all the argument we should need for the recognition of plural relationships.

Q & A: Advice for Singles Seeking Poly Relationships

Disclaimer: all answers given here are the opinions of one person. There is no one correct way to “do” poly, nor is there one correct way to conceptualize it.

Q: “I was wondering what advice or information you might be able to share for someone single looking to step into the Poly lifestyle (in the true sense of being Poly, versus just the sexual aspects).”

 

A: First of all, congratulations! You’re fortunate to already know you want a polyamorous relationship while single—in many ways, this is a much simpler starting point than the process of “converting” a pre-existing relationship from monogamous to polyamorous. But of course, there are still specific concerns that come along with dating and seeking poly relationships, and envisioning the poly life ahead of you. I’m sure this advice is by no means complete, but I hope it’s useful to you on your journey.

 

Think about what kind of relationship you want. Read books and websites and message boards where people are discussing their relationship configurations, and think about what sounds like the best fit for you. Do you want to become involved with someone in an already-existing web of relationships? Do you want to be the third member in a closed triad with a married couple? Do you want to focus on building a relationship with one person with the knowledge that you’re both open to additional relationships in the future? Do you envision yourself building a life and a home and a family with two or more long-term committed partners? Having at least some idea of what your ideal relationships look like can help you to know if a potential partner is a good fit for you. At the same time, however…

Remain flexible. There might be some things you’re certain you would never want, and it’s cool to know your own boundaries. But remain open to the idea that what you end up wanting might look different than what you thought you wanted in the beginning. Back when I was still monogamous, I used to think my ideal was to have only fairly casual romantic relationships outside of my marriage. But in practice, I quickly learned that I wanted something much more serious than that with an additional partner.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you start dating someone, be upfront about the kind of relationship you’re looking for. Even if this person is already identifying as poly, that can mean a lot of different things to different people, and different poly folks are looking for different things out of particular relationships. It’s difficult, but talk about your hopes and desires for the relationship as early on as possible. Of course, you can never know precisely what the future holds. But a simple clarification of whether you’re seeking a deeply romantic partnership, a friend to have fun with with few expectations attached, or anything in-between, can go along way in ensuring that you’re both on the same page.

Don’t limit yourself to only dating already-poly-identified people. Some poly folks disagree strongly with this, and swear that the best way to avoid drama is to stick to relationships only with others who are already living polyamorously. While I understand their reasoning, I also recognize that poly is something many, many people are entirely unfamiliar with, and there is always a possibility that you could introduce the concept to someone who thinks it sounds like a wonderful idea. Be willing to have conversations with others about poly, and to share sources of information that you’ve found useful (I always recommend Franklin Veaux’s website to poly newcomers). If you do date non-poly folks, though, be sure to disclose your poly desires right away. You don’t want to hurt anyone by being dishonest, and you also don’t want to spend time getting invested in a relationship if someone is going to be absolutely unreceptive to non-monogamy.

Remember that you have a right to express your feelings and needs. This particularly applies in a situation where you start dating someone who’s already partnered, particularly if they’re looking for more of a “secondary” relationship, though it can be relevant in a variety of situations. Of course, you should always be respectful of the relationship that existed before you came into the picture, and treat your partners’ other partners well. But that doesn’t mean that you are no longer a human being with needs and desires of your own. You’re still entitled to talk about what you want and how you feel, and you should never be made to feel like you don’t have a right to express those things.

And finally, the number one biggest piece of advice I would give all people about to embark on poly relationships…

Expect challenges. Even though you know this is what you want and you’re totally committed to it, chances are there will be times you struggle with it. I can almost guarantee that at some point in the future, you will feel jealous or insecure, and you will need to work through that. This isn’t a matter of how truly poly you are or how ideologically committed you are to the idea of being in poly relationships; emotions don’t always answer so neatly to ideology. If you think the fact that you’re enthusiastically choosing to partner this way means you will never struggle with the realities of living polyamorously, you will be completely blindsided by these feelings when and if they do occur. It’s also easy to fall into a trap of silencing and dismissing your own feelings because they seem irrational or don’t fit with your concept of yourself as a poly person. It’s far better to be prepared for these feelings in advance, and to realize that it won’t always be easy. When challenges do arise, acknowledging them and dealing with them head on will be far more productive in the long run than trying to repress and deny any negative feelings you have.

Good luck, and I hope your process of finding poly relationships is a fulfilling one!

Have questions you’d like to see answered here? E-mail them to angi.becker.stevens@gmail.com, with “Poly Q & A” in the subject line.

What do Radical Politics have to do with it?

From my experience in poly circles and communities, it seems there’s often a reluctance to talk about politics. There’s something to be said, perhaps, for having politically-neutral spaces where folks can come together for personal advice on dealing with poly issues. But even when conversations turn to poly activism, it seems to me that there’s often a hesitation to link our cause with any bigger socio-political picture, let alone to actually endorse or argue for any specific political position. But I’m going to go ahead and stick my neck out here and talk a bit about why for me, my polyamorous identity and my radical left politics are inseparable.

I have heard a lot of people say things like “I don’t want to politicize my personal relationships.” I get that. I really do. I think it’s a very natural impulse to want our intimate relationships to exist outside of a realm of rational, ideological thought. But here’s the thing: our relationships are already politicized. Whether we’re gay, straight, bi, queer, monogamous, polyamorous, asexual, or whatever nuanced combination of those identities, how we form intimate relationships—and to what degree those relationships are accepted and validated by the society we live in—is hugely shaped by the socio-political context in which we exist.

Making the transition to living polyamrously played a huge role in my personal radicalization. I’d always had socialist leanings and was aware that my opinions were far left of liberal Democrats, but to a certain degree I was comfortable with writing my own ideologies off as extremes that would likely never be reflected or represented by a majority. At the same time, I’d spent years trying to find contentment in monogamy, knowing all along that it wasn’t authentic for me but seeing no other viable alternative. I didn’t see a problem with society for presenting monogamy as the only option, I instead saw flaws within myself for being unsatisfied. When I was finally living in a poly relationship, feeling free to actually be myself for the first time in my life, I couldn’t help but look back and wonder what had taken me so long, and why this had seemed so incredibly impossible. And the answer, of course, was that my life and my choices had been circumscribed by society. I thought of myself as someone who was reasonably comfortable going against the status quo, but even I had some social constructs—like monogamy—that were so deeply internalized, I couldn’t even think to seriously question them, even when they were causing me to suffer. It became incredibly disturbing to me that we are so indoctrinated into the set of norms we live with, we are more prepared to criticize our own inner desires than to criticize the constructs which make those desires shameful. And that realization played a huge role in opening my eyes to just how severely society limits us.

The real crux of all this, of course, is that these limitations exist for a reason. Social norms don’t just happen spontaneously with no larger connection to the structure of the world we live in. These norms serve a purpose, a purpose that almost always has something to do with upholding the current hierarchy. Social constructs are not merely about “tradition,” they’re about protecting the interests of the rich, straight, white men in power. And any social change that didn’t threaten that power structure would be met with little resistance.

Let’s look for just a moment specifically at patriarchy. This is an extremely simplified breakdown, because I don’t want this post to become thesis-length. But to summarize: we live in a patriarchal society. And patriarchy relies on the subordinate position of women. Upholding the dominance of men requires upholding traditional gender roles. And traditional gender roles rely to some degree on traditional relationship structures. Both compulsory heterosexuality and compulsory monogamy, then, help to uphold the patriarchal order. And so on, and so forth, with every intersecting system of oppression we live with.

Now, I want to be clear when addressing these things that I am not suggesting that all leftists reject the institution of monogamy as part of their political position. I don’t believe that something as personal and emotional as our intimate relationships should ever be chosen as a political stance. The aim of radical leftists should be to create a world in which we are all granted the freedom to form intimate relationships authentically, whatever that means for each of us. But I do call on radical leftists to challenge the institution of compulsory monogamy, and to consider the ways that institution both supports and is supported by the other oppressive structures we dedicate ourselves to fighting against.

On the other side of that coin, I call on poly folks to consider the way our struggles to live authentically and to be accepted connect with the bigger hierarchical picture of our society. When I talk about solidarity, I don’t just mean that we sympathize with and support the struggles of other people because we understand what it’s like to be looked down on, too. And I’m not just talking about some kind of reciprocal “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way of looking at various fights for social justice. I’m talking about actually recognizing the complex system of oppressive social norms that are actually interconnected and are actively working to uphold one another. If you want to fight for poly acceptance but are not also interested in dismantling structures of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism, then I don’t believe you’re seeing the whole picture of society as it actually exists.

I realize this is brief for a discussion of such complex and deep-rooted problems, and I’m sure that some of it probably seems a bit vague and over-simplified. But the bottom line is, I think we need to start a dialogue. If we want to really challenge the status quo, to really disrupt social norms, then we need to start by thinking about where those norms came from, and whose interests they serve.