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.

No True Lover

I was trying to explain polyamory to my mother a few nights ago (not for the first time) and we kept getting stuck on the same things.

She kept saying, “But wouldn’t he feel disgusted knowing that his girlfriend had just slept with someone else and now she’s sleeping with him?”

I said, well, anyone who feels that disgusted about it probably won’t be trying polyamory anytime soon. The people I know who practice it do not find that disgusting.

“But they should.”

Why?

“Because it’s just disgusting.”

To you. But not to them.

“Then there’s something wrong with them.”

Why is there something wrong with them?

“Because if there wasn’t, they would think it’s disgusting.”

And on and on it went.

This is something I notice otherwise rational people a lot, this circuitous post-facto justification of opinions that are actually based on one’s personal feelings about something. A lot of people think polyamory is Wrong because they personally find the thought of it unpleasant. I used to, too.

When I presented her with a few stories of people who had been happily living in polyamorous relationships/marriages for years, seemingly without feeling disgusted every time one of their partners came back from spending time with a metamour, she changed her argument.

“They don’t truly love anyone, then.”

Why not?

“Because if they loved someone, they wouldn’t even think of sleeping with someone else.”

What about people who cheat?

“Well, their partners aren’t okay with that.”

So if they are okay with it, then they’re not in love?

“Right.”

I asked her what it would mean if someone who feels themselves to be in love with their partner nevertheless wants to sleep with other people, too, and is completely okay with their partner doing the same. Not just a grudging acceptance, but an eager agreement, even a joyful encouragement.

“Then they must not really love them. Then you have never truly loved anyone.”

But what if I feel that I love them?

“Then you’re feeling something else and you’re calling it love.”

People who oppose polyamory with these sorts of justifications–not that it’s morally wrong in any sense (my mother is not religious), but that it’s a sign of something wrong with you–define their own feelings and their own sense of what is mentally normal in opposition to the behavior of others. A “normal” person feels disgusted at the thought of their partner having sex with someone else. Therefore, a person who does not feel disgusted at this thought is abnormal. A person who is in love does not want to have sex with anyone else. Therefore, a person who wants to have sex with someone besides their partner is not in love with that partner.

What I perceive love to be doesn’t matter.

In fact, I am quite certain that I have loved several people, and even though some of those relationships were monogamous (some never even reached the relationship stage at all), I don’t think I was ever able or willing to commit to a lifetime without so much as a kiss with someone else.

Some (including, most likely, my mother) would say that that’s mainly a consequence of my age, even though plenty of people have gotten married at my age or younger, and that at my age it is impossible to “truly” love someone.

(Again, defining things as is most convenient for you.)

I love, and I have loved. Maybe by my mother’s definition, it isn’t really love. Maybe I am incapable of feeling love like that. Maybe there is something horribly wrong with me. Maybe I am a broken person. Maybe my brain is wrong. Maybe I am missing out on a wondrous, unimaginable (to me) experience that humans have longed for throughout the millennia, written songs and novels and plays about, painted paintings of, suffered over, killed for, died for.

I have entertained all of these possibilities.

And to them, I say:

So what?

I like the way I feel when I love someone. What I call love, I experience in several varieties that all feel irreplaceably different. I don’t love all of my partners in the same ways. I don’t love all of my friends in the same ways. I don’t love all of the people I’m not sure whether to call “partner” or “friend” in the same ways.

I don’t really care if what I call love is what other people call love. If my partners love me back, I don’t care if their subjective experience of that love is the same as mine. Things like that used to concern me an awful lot–who loves the other “more,” who cares “more,” who loves the other “how,” all that other rubbish my depression filled my brain with–but nowadays I rarely think about it.

I hope that when my partners think about me they think about comfort, joy, lust, respect, admiration, gratitude, appreciation, beauty, fun. That’s what love basically is to me, with varying amounts of each of these depending on the person. With my boyfriend, the ones that jump out the most are comfort, lust, respect, and fun. With my best friend, it’s comfort, admiration, and gratitude. But they’re all there.

If this isn’t The Real Love Referenced In Famous Films And Novels, well, whatever. I’ll take what I’ve got, without the monogamy, the jealousy, the fights about what does and doesn’t count as cheating, the worries about trying to be everything the other has ever wanted sexually, the suspicion of ex-partners and relevantly gendered friends.

So I’ve never Really Loved anyone and never will. Fine by me.