Tag Archives: monogamy

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.

Poly Feminism: Monogamy’s One-Sided History

The supposed long and honorable tradition of monogamous marriage is often held up as an argument against everything from legal same-sex marriage to polyamorous relationships. But even aside from the fact that such arguments from tradition are inherently fallacious, this depiction of monogamy’s history is simply wrong. Throughout most of known history, in fact, monogamy has been a patriarchal double standard. In many times and places, sexual fidelity within marriage has been demanded of women, while men have been either implicitly or explicitly entitled to seek sex freely outside of marriage. In ancient Greece, often held up as a paragon of sexual liberty, it was only men who were given license to engage in free sexual relationships with women and boys outside of their marriages; Rome’s marital expectations were no different. In Marriage: A History, Stephanie Coontz writes: “The sexual double standard was so completely accepted by Romans that the educator Quintilian used the notion of a sexual single standard as the perfect illustration of an illogical proposition: ‘If a relationship between a mistress and a male slave is disgraceful, then one between a master and a female slave is disgraceful.’ This statement sounds reasonable to contemporary ears, along the lines of what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. But to Quintilian the parallel was ridiculous, and he had no doubt his audience would agree. To suggest that men should be bound by the same moral conventions as women, he argued, was as illogical as to conclude that human morality should be the same as animal morality.”

Of course, it’s difficult to fully draw comparisons between ancient civilizations and the modern world, but the sexual double standard is one feature of these civilizations that has persisted. In Western cultures, male infidelity was often discussed quite lightly and openly until the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century, such conversations simply became more discreet. In times and places where the law has concerned itself with marital infidelity, punishments for sexually unfaithful wives have nearly always been far more severe than punishments for unfaithful husbands. When men have been legally punished for crimes of infidelity, it is usually when they have played the role of the “other man,” and in that case have “stolen” another man’s property. In fact, much of marriage law was written as a kind of property law. And marriage was not, historically, an egalitarian relationship that gave both partners a kind of “ownership” over each other. It was unapologetically one-sided, granting men ownership of women. Even rape of another man’s wife was not historically seen as a violation of the woman so much as an act of theft from the husband.

Barbaric as all of this might sound, we are hardly free from these double standards today. Society still largely condones the sexual infidelity of men with a dismissive “boys will be boys” response, or places the burden on women to keep a man interested—ie., if you don’t have sex at a certain frequency or maintain a certain beauty standard, he’ll cheat; it’s simply his nature to do so, and fighting that nature is an uphill battle on the woman’s part. Women, meanwhile, continue to face much harsher social condemnation for infidelity, as sexual desire is still not widely seen as a “natural” part of our characters. When women engage in infidelity, we are defying not only the bounds of monogamy, but the bounds of our (chaste and virtuous) gender roles as well. And while perhaps it happens, I’ve never once heard someone blame a man for his female partner’s unfaithfulness, and find it difficult to imagine folks saying things like “he shouldn’t have let himself gain those 30 pounds and she wouldn’t have found someone sexier” or “he should have gone down on her more often, then she wouldn’t have looked for it elsewhere.” Sexual double standards might no longer be codified in (Western) law, but they are no less engrained in society.

Many of the attempts to encourage more egalitarian marriage have centered on discouraging male sexual liberty. But polyamory can be seen as taking the opposite approach: not denying male desire for multiple partners, but claiming a right to that desire for women as well. By and large, men, as a group have never been monogamous (though obviously, plenty of individual men have been). And in that sense, polyamory certainly has the potential to exist as a new frontier for women in particular.

All of this is not to say, of course, that monogamy cannot be egalitarian. As human beings, we have the ability to constantly reshape and redefine our social institutions, and countless modern-day couples live happily in marriages that bear no resemblance to the historical woman-as-property model. But if we are going to have an open and honest dialogue about what monogamy means, I believe we need to have an honest awareness of its history. And we can’t possibly talk truthfully about the “tradition” of marriage without acknowledging that tradition as a patriarchal one.

Poly Basics: Jealousy and Poly Relationships

The first thing I want to say on this subject is that jealousy—the experience of jealousy—is real. I think that sometimes when we’re trying to make ideological arguments against the way jealousy tends to play out in monogamous scenarios, we sound too dismissive of the very real pain and suffering that jealousy often causes. So I think it’s important to say at the outset of this discussion that regardless of whether jealousy is a social construction, it causes very real emotional consequences for people. When we decide to become polyamorous, we don’t just press a magical jealousy off-button, though it would be fantastic if we could. Some of us might truly just be “non-jealous types.” But for most of us, jealousy is still something we struggle with. We’ve just made a choice to confront it and deal with it in a different way.

I’m strongly of the opinion that romantic jealousy is very largely rooted in fear. Monogamous culture tells us that other possible romantic (or sexual) interests our partners have are unequivocally threats to our existing relationship. We are taught that it is simply not possible for someone to romantically love two people simultaneously. Therefore, if my partner begins to have feelings for someone else, the traditional thinking says that he must no longer have the same feelings for me. This thinking conditions us to fear situations where even the potential for romantic interest exists, to be uncomfortable with and skeptical about scenarios such as a partner developing a deep friendship with a person of their romantically preferred gender (good luck if you’re bi; all of your friendships must be treated as suspect). In this kind of paradigm, where other people are seen as a threat, it’s easy to view fear as a rational response.

In turn, jealousy is then used to justify all kinds of dehumanizing, possessive, controlling behaviors, particularly those enacted on women by men. The traditional monogamous (and patriarchal) ideology says that it’s reasonable for men to tell women who they can and can’t spend time with, what time they should be home at night, what they can and can’t wear. When jealousy is a motivating factor, we excuse people for invading one another’s privacy by reading each other’s emails and text messages, spying on them or listening in on conversations, and all manner of creepy, controlling behavior that’s often considered a precursor to physical abuse.

I have said a multitude of times that I do not have a problem with monogamy itself. But I do have a problem with the way monogamous ideology plays out when it fuels this kind of behavior. Jealousy does not ever justify controlling the behavior of others and treating them as possessions, and any social allowance for this kind of behavior is highly problematic.

But unfortunately, this fear-based jealousy is so deeply engrained in us, it can be very difficult to shake, even if we’ve shifted our thinking to recognize that others don’t pose a threat to our existing relationships. So what’s the alternative approach to dealing with these very real feelings, if not to enact rules and regulations to control the behavior of others?

In my opinion, and in my experience, the most valuable way to deal with your own feelings of jealousy is by communicating what you want and need from your partner, not by attempting to control their behavior outside of the relationship. If you’re feeling insecure, don’t respond by criticizing something your partner does with someone else, or by comparing one relationship to another. Instead, ask directly for what you need to feel better. Not by saying “I want you to spend less time with her,” but instead by saying “I really need some more quality time with you.” Try to identify exactly what bothers you about a particular situation. Are you afraid this other person is smarter, better in bed, more attractive? Do you feel threatened because they share something in common, an interest or a skill, with your partner that you don’t share? Does it just plain make you feel icky to imagine your partner having a similar emotional intimacy with someone else as they have with you? It’s important to really understand the particulars of your jealousy in order to be able to ask for the kinds of reassurance that will really succeed in making you feel better. But whatever you do, don’t beat yourself up for feeling jealous. It’s not your fault you’ve lived however many years in a society that teaches you to feel extreme discomfort at the very thought of your partner relating intimately to someone else. Communicate openly, be as honest as possible, and don’t turn your own feelings of fear into an attack on the other person.

What about when you’re on the other side, and it’s your partner who is wrestling with jealousy? First of all, validate and empathize with you partner’s feelings. Don’t try to simply rationalize him or her into feeling differently. Emotions are messy, and don’t always correspond neatly to ideology; it’s possible to know that a new relationship poses no threat to an existing one, and yet still struggle with very real pain and insecurity. Respond to your jealous partner with sympathy, not anger. But also, make it clear that your partner needs to be asking for what he or she needs from you, not trying to control your behavior with others. And when your partner does communicate needs and desires, make sure you do your best to meet them. This is how you build trust and security, and prove that your new relationship is not a threat.

Be sympathetic, too, about the pace at which your partner feels comfortable actually spending time with you and your new partner. Respect and recognize that someone saying “I’m not ready to see you two together yet” is not the same as saying “I’m not ready for you two to be together.” I don’t believe in making “rules” to circumscribe the behavior of others, but I do believe we all have a right to make our own decisions about what social situations we are or aren’t feeling ready to put ourselves in. After a time, it might become reasonable and necessary to ask a partner to step out of his or her comfort zone in this regard, but I recommend a willingness to take this part of things slowly if that’s what your partner needs.

I think it’s entirely possible for even monogamous relationships to use this sort of model for dealing with jealousy, rather than falling into the trap of possessive, controlling behavior. And conversely, it’s also possible for poly folks to respond problematically to jealousy, even after we think we’ve left the old paradigm behind. The basic suggestions I’ve offered here are no surefire guarantee that things will always go smoothly and that no one will ever feel hurt or angry. We have to remember how thoroughly we’ve been conditioned to feel jealousy, and to give ourselves permission to have some difficulty overcoming that. But we can’t extend that to permission to control and dehumanize others, regardless of how real our emotional experience of fear might be.

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.