I’m just getting back from vacation, and during my trip a friend turned to me and asked, “So what’s up with you and polyamory?” So it seems like as good a time as any to post this rambling ….
Many alternative subcultures — including my main squeezes: science fiction and fantasy, gaming, and goth — overlap considerably with radical sex subcultures. That is, if you’re in one subculture, you’re likely to be familiar with the others. There’s an especial lot of overlap with consensual non-monogamy, particularly polyamory. (The other “main” sex subculture for consensual non-monogamy, swing, is better-represented among the mainstream.) The famous science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein was a fierce proponent of polyamory; indeed, when I first read his book Stranger in a Strange Land in middle school, I felt super frustrated by how negatively he portrayed monogamy.
As I got older and started integrating into alternative subcultures, I got more and more exposure to polyamory. I also got more and more exposure to “polyvangelists”: people who, like Heinlein, scornfully dismiss monogamy as “less evolved” or “less intelligent” or “more selfish” than polyamory. It enraged me. “Honestly,” I always said, “I really don’t care if you want to have multiple boyfriends and/or girlfriends, but quit telling me I’m wrong because I don’t!”
I toyed with poly — over the course of my first and longest-running relationship, I took a semester away in Europe, and my boyfriend and I decided to have an open relationship while I was on another continent. During that time, I started dating a European, and I was basically as monogamous as you can get while having another boyfriend across the ocean. I wasn’t remotely interested in dating other locals. My version of poly was as monogamous as possible, and when I returned to America I assumed my boyfriend and I would return to our previously-mono ways. He, however, didn’t assume the same thing. He wanted to stay poly.
Unfortunately, this became one of the biggest contested points in our relationship. We went back to being monogamous, but it was an uneasy dynamic. I tried to find compromises; I was comfortable saying that he could hook up with men but not women, for instance, which he did. At one point, I even said that although I felt really uncomfortable with the idea of being poly, I thought I might be able to handle it as long as he could assure me that he wouldn’t fall in love with his other sexual partners; he decided that he couldn’t promise that. He then cheated on me, which did not help the situation at all. (Responsible polyamorists don’t advocate cheating, by the way — if either partner is dishonest, most polyfolk will bristle and say “that’s not poly!”)
Being fascinated by sexuality and relationships, I’d already thought a lot about polyamory and monogamy, but the situation with my boyfriend threw my brain into overdrive. I tore myself apart trying to figure out why, although I was okay with other people being poly — I even argued in defense of poly when mainstream people stereotyped it! — I couldn’t stand the idea of being poly myself. I felt attacked, under siege, like I constantly had to defend or justify my preference.
I finally settled on thinking of monogamy as a “sexual orientation” or a “kink”: I figured that monogamy was just wired into me, sexually, the same way homosexuality might be for a gay person. (And I’ve met others who feel the same way — who characterize their monogamy as “innate”.)
Time passed. I came into my BDSM identity. I finally broke things off permanently with my first boyfriend; then I had two deep, intense, happily monogamous relationships. I still thought about polyamory sometimes, because it’s interesting, but I no longer felt anxious while doing so. One of my aggressively polyamorous friends characterized me as his “reasonably monogamous” friend, and told me that — although he feels most monogamous people don’t think hard enough about polyamory to justify dismissing it as an option — he thought that I certainly had. I accepted this accolade with a smile.
Then I got my heart broken. Badly, and dramatically. And ever since then … I’ve been feeling less and less monogamous. I still identified so strongly with my “monogamy orientation” that I told people monogamy was what I wanted, and I had some monogamous relationships … but I felt mounting unease. I wanted to be conducting relationships with multiple people; not just that, I also found myself fantasizing about sex with multiple people. Cautiously, I started negotiating limited forms of polyamory (for example, my last relationship and my current one have both been monogamous in terms of “traditional” sex, but not monogamous in terms of S&M partners) … but it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to start experimenting with full-on polyamory and/or maybe to swing. In fact … I still … do?
Me, of all people! The “monogamy oriented” girl! The “reasonably monogamous” one! The one who considered it all so carefully and knew exactly what she wanted! How did this happen?
I broached the subject with my current boyfriend a few months ago; he reacted with unease, and later wrote me an email that said: I do not want to come between you and your explorations. My presence would not entirely hamper them (as I understand the things you’ve listed), but I think that I might well resist swinging or (particularly) polyamory. I’d hate to think I’d circumscribed you with regard to S&M, but I feel much more ambivalent about swing and poly, things less compelling to me, which conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner. If there’s one sticking point I have that’s actually (contrasted with apparently) going to be extremely difficult to negotiate, it’s monogamy.
“Conflict with my own desires regarding the ideal partner”: I read that with bemusement. Not because I can’t understand his perspective, but because the words sound exactly like something I would have said two years ago. Back then, my ideal partner was someone who would commit to me, monogamously; that’s reflected in everything I thought and everything I wrote during that time, including my recently-published coming-out story. But now ….?
How tempting, to blame my old heartbreak — maybe I’m still “really” mono, but I’ve got emotional baggage? Maybe I’m just afraid of commitment, afraid of putting “all my eggs in one basket”, in the wake of that experience? Maybe I’ve finally been (as “Moulin Rouge” would have it) cured of my ridiculous obsession with love, and I’m ready to take a more realistic view — one that doesn’t expect one person to be everything to me? Maybe I was only ever determined to be mono because I felt as though people were attacking me for being mono, and I had to resist? Yet this all seems so facile, so pop-psychological. My heart’s been broken before, for one thing.
Still, here’s another pop-psychological twist: recently, I’ve not only fantasized about sex with multiple people; I’ve fantasized about partners hurting my feelings by having sex with other people. Remember folks, I’m a submissive masochist, and when I’m in the proper mood I like it when my lovers make me cry — though it never occurred to me that I’d get turned on by the idea of so much emotional pain. Turned on by the idea of a lover savagely breaking my heart, leaving me for someone more beautiful, successful, etc ….
Most unsettlingly, I’m afraid that not only am I still “really” mono, but that going for poly relationships will end up screwing me. I’m afraid that if I were to fall blazingly, consumingly, totally in love again … the poly leanings would disappear. Here’s the scariest question: is this attraction to polyamory simply coming up because I’m not perfectly in love?
If my ideal partner would be monogamous, but I want to be poly because I’m not sure I can find my ideal partner, then that doesn’t just seem dangerous; it seems … dishonest. I know polyfolk who have been really hurt by newly-poly people who thought they were open to a poly relationship — but then the newly-poly person finds The One, feels a strong pull back towards monogamy, and dumps her poly partners. Certainly, if I were a poly person reading this, then — looking at my own reservations — I wouldn’t date me. But then again, what if this really does mark a sea change in my outlook, and I’d be perfectly happy being polyamorous indefinitely?
I know one smart BDSM educator who makes it a point to warn kinksters just entering the community that “desires change over time”, and that one should be prepared. I thought I knew that. But I wasn’t prepared for this.
I want to end on one important point: just because I may be interested in poly now does not mean that it was the best thing for me all along. There’s a difference between these feelings and, say, my BDSM orientation. I recognize BDSM as something I’ve been looking for my entire life — but, for me, the same is not true of polyamory (although I believe that there are polyamorists out there who feel it as an innate identity, like for example Raven Kaldera). In fact, I’m sure that I would never have evolved into this interest in polyamory if I’d kept dating a partner who was pressuring me into it despite my doubts and anxieties. But this is a whole nother post, so I’ll end here.