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.