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Q & A: How to Explain the Choice to Identify as a Non-Monogamous Couple

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: With our open relationship status we are free to date, sleep with, fall in love with whoever we want but we both work full time and its hard to find time to meet new people, especially ones who would be open to a poly relationship. We’ve tried swing parties and online dating to no avail. We have kind of realized that we have to let things happen naturally and it may take a long time to find someone who would be a perfect fit for an additional partner for either of us or for a third in our relationship, which, although is frustrating sometimes, it’s ok because we don’t want to rush anything and we want it to feel right when it happens but my question is: When we tell friends, family, acquaintances that we are in an open relationship but they see we have been going strong for a year but we don’t do that much dating and we don’t have a third person in our relationship, they often say “Well why don’t you just be monogamous then?” Which either leads to me trying to explain Third wave feminism, patriarchy, the messed up-ness of “Ownership” of a person and all sorts of other complicated ideals that I may not be in the mood to explain and a lot of the time I end up getting tongue tied but I still want them to understand all of those things. So, like, is there a nice, easy reply to that question?

A: First of all, I can relate a lot to your situation. My husband and I spent around 7 months as “just us” in-between the time I dated my ex-boyfriend and began dating my boyfriend, and we still absolutely considered our relationship polyamorous in that time. I wasn’t one for actively seeking another partner myself, and was content to wait for it to happen naturally. But it was still extremely important to us to identify as poly, and would have remained important even if it had been years before someone new came along.

I think perhaps the easiest way to explain it to others is to remind them that monogamy means a commitment to only be romantically and/or sexually involved with one person. If a couple enters a relationship and decides to be monogamous, they don’t just mean “until one of us meets someone else.” To people who desire monogamy, that commitment is a huge deal. And it carries with it a whole big set of well-known expectations about what is and is not appropriate to do with others outside of the relationship.

You, on the other hand, are in a relationship where you have chosen not to commit to monogamy. It doesn’t matter if it’s just the two of you for a long time to come; you still value your freedom to potentially connect with others romantically. Monogamy is incredibly meaningful to those who prefer it, and it shouldn’t be viewed as something to enter into lightly, and I doubt most defenders of monogamy would want to see the word being used by folks who would not mean it as “we are committed to the institution of monogamy” but rather as “we’re monogamous until we meet someone else.” To me, the notion that a relationship can be “monogamous by default” makes about as much sense as saying that someone should identify as asexual while they’re temporarily single. These labels are far more about the potentials we see in the long-term than they are mere descriptors of a relationship’s current form.

If you happen to be having a conversation where it feels like it makes sense to elaborate on your deeper polyamorous ideology–to talk about your ideas about feminism and “ownership” and how this all relates to your relationship philosophy–it can be great to open up dialogues about those things. But you shouldn’t feel that you have to go on at length about why you’re non-monogamous in order to assert the fact that you are non-monogamous. In situations where it feels more comfortable to keep it brief, I think it’s pretty concise and clear to simply say “Being monogamous means being committed to only being with one partner. We’re polyamorous (or open, if you prefer), because we’re committed to having the freedom to be with other partners.”

There might always be some small number of people who think that you’re just trying to identify in some “edgy” way, even after you offer an explanation. But you can’t always control others’ perceptions of you–especially in non-traditional relationships!–and trying to do so will often lead to more frustration than its worth. Explain yourselves the best you can, but don’t feel pressured to bend over backward trying to make it clear to people who still don’t understand. The two of you are on the same page about what kind of relationship you have, and that’s ultimately the most important thing.

Why The Radical Poly Agenda?

I decided to start this blog because I often feel like the polyamorous community could benefit from more socio-political analysis, and that at the same time, the broader world of socio-political commentary lacks polyamorous voices. As a polyamorous woman, a feminist writer, and a radical leftist concerned with the intersections of gender, sexuality, race, and class in our society, I think I have the potential to bring some underrepresented perspectives to the table. And frankly, I’m also starting this blog because I frequently find myself with a whole lot to say about polyamory, and not a whole lot of forums in which to say it.

Because people often seem confused by what it means to advocate for polyamory, I think it’s important to clarify up front that I am not speaking out in opposition to monogamy. Monogamy is just fine and dandy for those who choose it. What I’m interested in is critiquing the social institution of compulsory monogamy—the set of norms that tell us monogamy is the only available option.

So why does this critique matter? Because not everyone feels comfortable and fulfilled in monogamous relationships, just like not everyone would be comfortable and fulfilled in a heterosexual relationship. There is no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to love and intimacy. But when alternatives to monogamy are invalidated by the society we live in, it’s incredibly difficult for anyone to make an authentic and conscious choice about what kind of relationship they prefer to be in.

My radical agenda is to create a world where all people are able to freely choose how to form romantic and intimate bonds, whether that choice is for monogamy, polyamory, or something else entirely; a world where all people can say they entered into a particular relationship formation with intent, not simply as a result of following a social default. And it’s my honest belief that living in such a world will greatly benefit all of us, not just those of us who happen to be polyamorous.

I’ll leave my little “mission statement” at that for now. But rest assured, there’s plenty more to come. Thanks for joining me here, I hope you’ll stick around.