I Don’t Actually Get Monogamy

#polyamory #what some might classify as being judgmental of monogamous people

When polyamorous people talk about polyamory and monogamy, we often feel obligated to add little disclaimers like “but of course polyamory isn’t for everyone, some people just prefer monogamy and that’s fine!” or “of course, I understand that for some people monogamy is what’s best!”

To be honest, I say these things because I have to, not because they feel genuine. Yes, I do understand that monogamy works just fine for many people and that they prefer it, but I don’t grok* it. I don’t actually understand why monogamy is preferable. I just know that it is, because people say so and I believe them when they talk about their own feelings and experiences.

Sure, I’ve heard all the reasons; this isn’t an invitation to leave them in the comments. It’s simpler, there’s less negotiation and coordination involved, less awkwardness with family and in-laws, don’t have to deal with jealousy (except when you do), don’t have to worry they’ll leave you for someone else (except when you do), you get more time with them, you get to feel like you’re The Only One For Them, even though they probably had other partners before you and may have others in the future.

In that sense, many of monogamy’s supposed advantages seem illusory or conditional at best, which is part of the reason I can’t grok it.

But the other reason is that like…it still involves telling your partner what they can and can’t do with their body and time and relationships. That makes as much sense to me as telling my best friend that I don’t want her to have any other best friends and if she wants a different one then we have to stop being best friends with each other. Many of us tried that in elementary school, probably without much success or mutual happiness.

Some monogamous people say that they’re not controlling each other at all because neither of them happens to want any other partners. That’s, obviously, legitimate, but then I don’t see why they’d need to have a rule that says they can’t be with other people. Rules are made to keep people from doing things they want to do but shouldn’t do for whatever reason, and are  completely superfluous if nobody actually wants to do the thing.

The real test would be this: what if tomorrow or next month or next year, one of them meets someone else they want to get involved with? Would that be an actual open discussion, or would it be shut down with “no you can’t do that,” or never even brought up at all because a “no” would be expected?

Personally, I like to construct relationships (and other life things) in ways that allow for the fact that I will inevitably grow and change in ways I can’t predict at all. I understand that this isn’t important for everyone, but I can’t grok why it wouldn’t be.

Maybe part of the confusion is that “monogamy” seems to mean both “we are not allowed to have other partners” and “we do not have other partners.” There isn’t a perfect correlation between those, though. Plenty of couples who’d be open to having other partners nevertheless don’t because they haven’t met anyone or they haven’t had time or the stars didn’t align or whatnot. (And, of course, plenty of couples who are not “allowed” to have other partners nevertheless don’t, and this often gets called monogamy even though it technically isn’t.)

The important distinction to me isn’t “do you have more than one partner right now,” but “do you insist that you partner commit to only be with you.”

I can actually see myself in a situation where I happen to have found a person who I fit so well with that I lose interest in dating others (though I think this is very unlikely), but I don’t see why that means I should tell them that they shouldn’t want to date others either. So what? They can do what they want. I can do what I want.

Many people talk about it being “unfair” if one person in a couple dates others and the other doesn’t, but I don’t see what’s unfair about that as long as the latter person isn’t being “banned” from dating others. Nothing will ever be fully “equal” in a relationship–even if the relationship itself is egalitarian, one person might have a better, more fulfilling job, or make more money, or have much more supportive family, or have more friends and social outlets, or be more skilled at certain important things, or more social privilege. Yes, these things can be difficult to navigate and can cause jealousy and resentment in a relationship, and all of that has to be brought out into the open and worked on. But it doesn’t make sense to solve these problems by forcing the partner who’s more fortunate in some way to give that fortune up.

What I do get is when someone’s mental illness makes aspects of polyamory triggering or otherwise unmanageable. I do disagree with the popular narrative that mental illness and polyamory are always a bad mix–for some of us, it’s monogamy that’s incompatible with mental illness–but clearly for some people they are. I can definitely grok not being able to do something because your mental illness won’t let you, and then to be unwilling or unable to change that. (Even if it can be changed with therapy or whatever, not everyone has the time, money, or energy to do that work.)

But I don’t know how I could ever ask my partner to just dump all their other partners (that’s what it means what you “become monogamous” or “close the relationship,” though it’s rarely spoken of in those terms) for the sake of my mental health, which is my responsibility. If my partner offered of their own accord to stop/not start seeing other people, that might feel different, but asking them to–with the implication that if they don’t agree, they’re to blame for any worsening of my mental health–seems manipulative.

On the other hand, sometimes you have to be manipulative to save your life.

Most polyamory-or-monogamy decisions aren’t a matter of life and death, though, or anywhere close to it. Some people can’t be poly because it would make them miserable and wouldn’t be worth it, but most people who choose monogamy seem to do it without seriously considering polyamory, and if they do consider it, they dismiss it immediately as being “too difficult.” That’s what I can’t grok. If I were seriously considering telling a partner what they can and can’t do with their own body and free time, I would want to make damn certain that it’s for a really, really, really good reason. (Although, honestly, if I wanted that badly to try to control someone, I would probably leave them.)

I don’t usually say any of this, not only because it makes people mad at me, but because it’s not nice and nobody asked my opinion. I don’t evangelize polyamory; honestly, the last thing we need is more poly people who don’t really want to be poly or who haven’t thought about it thoroughly. There is nobody I want to date who insists on monogamy, so I definitely don’t have a dog in the fight. I am happy for my happily monogamous friends. Et cetera et cetera.

What I think is notable isn’t that I don’t “get” monogamy, but how many people don’t “get” polyamory, and say so–frequently, loudly–without any pushback. How many times have I heard “Wow, I could never do that,” “But how would that even work?”, “But how could you truly love someone if you’re okay with them sleeping with someone else?“, “I had a friend who tried that once and they were miserable and quit it after a few months,” “That’s just wrong,” “Why can’t you just be satisfied with one?”, “That just sounds so awful!”? Many times. Except, unlike me, they won’t even say, “But I believe you when you say that it’s what works for you.” They usually deny, if implicitly, that my own feelings are valid at all.

And usually, nobody calls those people “judgmental” or “self-righteous,” and nobody accuses them of trying to “evangelize monogamy,” and nobody writes screeds about how “annoying” they are, the way they do about polyamorous people. Monogamy is invisible; polyamory is marked. That’s why anything that polyamorous people say about polyamory is given extra scrutiny in a way that the things monogamous people say about monogamy are not. Moreover, many of the things monogamous people say about monogamy aren’t even interpreted as Defenses Of Monogamy. They’re just “obvious.” They’re just “how things are.” Monogamy needs no defense.

I suppose my inability to grok monogamy is a failure of imagination or open-mindedness, but in any case, there’s not much I can do to change it now. Monogamy is ever-present in every book I read and every movie and TV show I watch, almost every conversation about dating and relationships that I hear outside of my own social circle, every magazine cover promising to help me find The One. If I don’t get it now, I probably never will. The least I can do is to not be an asshole to monogamous people (which means, as I said I do, believing them when they say monogamy is what they prefer), but also to continue showing people that polyamory isn’t really that weird, and it doesn’t feel awful at all, and here’s how to do it responsibly if you’re interested.


*Grok means to understand something intuitively, or through empathy. I use that word in this post to distinguish my failure to “get” monogamy from an actual belief that monogamy is wrong or ineffective or whatever. It’s not. I don’t think it is. I just can’t actually put myself in the shoes/brain of someone who prefers monogamy.  Another possibly-helpful way to say this is that I believe that monogamy can be preferable, but I don’t alieve that monogamy can be preferable.

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8 thoughts on “I Don’t Actually Get Monogamy

  1. Excellent post. My wife and I are monogamous but like basically by default because there’s so little conversation about any other options. I don’t struggle to understand polyamory anymore than monogamy. Both are equally weird and equally not weird to me.

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  2. I’m monogamous because it’s what’s comfortable for me and my boyfriend right now, but I think the points you make are all very on point. I think a lot of the prevalence of monogamy has a lot more to do with habit and the status quo than anything else. I don’t believe that monogamy or polyamory are, as a rule, more or less difficult than the other; that would obviously depend on a number of factors. But I think that if society as a whole was comfortable with polyamory, then most people would probably be polyamorous, I think. Probably because it allows for more flexibility in constructing your relationships? Because when it comes down to it, polyamory allows people to end up only dating each other in a 2-person-group sort of thing. It doesn’t REQUIRE there to be 3+ partners at all times. (As far as I know anyways. I haven’t seen anyone say that, so I certainly hope that’s not the case.)

    I’m autistic and the way my autism interacts with me as a person is that, in one way, I am a rule-follower by nature. This has mellowed out over the years, but I’ve never been someone who would break rules for the sake of breaking rules. And I’ve wondered a lot as an adult if part of the reason I’m cis, heterosexual, heteroromantic, and monogamous is because that’s what I was taught I was supposed to be. (Obviously this wouldn’t be true for all autistics since there are indeed autistics who are LGBTQIAP in one form or another or are polyamorous. But then, it’s a spectrum, so this is to be expected.) As far as being straight goes, I suspect that part of why I’m straight is because there was never another option presented to me while I was developing and, at this point, I don’t think that would change (at least not for a while). I think being monogamous is similar. Monogamy is decidedly a LIMITING relationship dynamic. It’s specifically about limitations. Polyamory, on the other hand, seems to be much more about being able to be in the various types of relationships one may want or not want. I think that TECHNICALLY by some definitions of the word “complicated” that it is more complicated, but it could also be said that monogamy is far too simple and restrictive in the same line of thought.

    It’s also been posited by scientists and anthropologists and the like that monogamy isn’t really our “natural” state (whatever that means, of course) and that polyamory used to be the norm at some point. Which means that monogamy is an enforced practice of some kind, which I’m inclined to think makes sense. (Altho I have not done enough research to back that up myself.)

    Also, thank you so much for the word “grok!” As an autistic person, there are things I feel that I will never be able to really get. I’ve described it as feeling like there’s a huge chasm in my mind with a door on the other side and I will never be able to get over that chasm, much less get the door open. (Interestingly, my friend who’s ace said that was more or less how she felt about other people wanting to have sex. She knew they wanted to and that there’s like biology and chemical reactions or whatever, but couldn’t understand WHY on a personal level.) Like, for example, I couldn’t figure out why people broke the rules as a kid. It wasn’t until I was 18 that I realized it was because people wanted to. Like. I couldn’t fathom that people were breaking rules ON PURPOSE; I kept puzzling over whether they’d misunderstood the rules or forgotten or something. And I still don’t understand WHY people want to break the rules sometimes. Or things like friends sitting in silence together. Very little makes me so anxious as sitting in silence with my friends. I know people enjoy this, but I can’t fathom how it doesn’t cause them anxiety. So the word “grok” is PERFECT for that feeling!

    Sorry, little bit of a ramble there. I guess I haven’t put this into words before.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, I just recently bookmarked this! Must read it later (I should be getting to bed now oops).

        I find studies of what people think is “normal” or whatever very interesting. I’ve wondered in the past if maybe more autistics should be sociologists because who better to study that than someone who does not inherently understand it the way others do?

        Polyamory is very interesting to me. I think I could theoretically be comfortable with being poly, but my current boyfriend isn’t and it’s not something I feel an urge to do, so I’m fine not exploring it. I do wis society in general was more open to exploring it, though. It can really provide so many opportunities, I think, and I believe the way the community focuses on consent and communication would go a long way with the current “mainstream” society.

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  3. “And, of course, plenty of couples who are not ‘allowed’ to have other partners nevertheless don’t, and this often gets called monogamy even though it technically isn’t.”

    Don’t you mean that they nevertheless *do* have other partners?

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  4. Great article. I’ve been sober for a long time. I never talk about my sobriety outside of AA beyond, ‘no thank you, I don’t drink.’ Some people don’t give it a second thought, others seem convinced I’m judging their choice to drink or that I’m self righteous. I often think that many people in the latter category have a problem with drinking they don’t want to admit to, sometimes it’s glaringly obvious. I wonder if there’s a similar thing with this phenomenon. People secure in their choice of monogamy wouldn’t feel judged by people who choose polyamory. Of course sometimes it’s not a choice really, it’s pressure from society and people feel trapped and unfulfilled, maybe sometimes those are the people who get defensive.

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    • I think what you said in your comment is very true and very important. I notice this sort of behaviour in many different topics. For example, I’m a vegetarian, but since I moved to France I avoid saying it, because often people start telling me what kind of vitamins I’m missing and how bad being a vegetarian is for me and listing all the great qualities of meat. I think they actually feel guilty and defend themselves for eating meat, even though I never judge anybody for eating it, because guess what: everybody can do whatever he/she feels like doing. I have my beliefs about eating meat, but that does not mean I will force them on someone if they don’t explicitly ask for my opinion. I just wish meat-eaters would do the same.

      I’ve never been in a relationship long enough to know in which way I want to be poly, but I know I can’t be monogamous. It seems so limiting, for me and for my partner. It’s really a concept I don’t get at all and it’s frustrating when you like someone and they like you back (even tell you), but nothing can happen because they’re already in a monogamous relationship. I think if you really love someone you let them be completely free.

      Also, I agree: great article! A lot of thoughts I’ve had before 🙂 found this by typing “I don’t get monogamy” into google 😀

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  5. Great article, especially in how it points out the way monogamy doesn’t need to be explained in the public mind because it is considered the baseline of normal.
    I do think it’s important to make a distinction between rules and boundaries. If it’s a deal breaker for my partner to have another romantic/sexual partner and I communicate that clearly respectfully, then I’m creating a rule (which tells THEM what to do), I’m establishing a boundary (which tells what’s good for ME). It may seem like a subtle distinction, and no doubt some people do truly try to control others, but it’s an important one.

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