By Eric Francis
The other day, an email came floating into my inbox from a website called Care2, an activist website, claiming 12.5 million subscribers. The subject header of the email read, “Monogamy vs. Polyamory: Do Open Relationships Work?”
Naturally, I thought: this ought to be pretty interesting.
The writer gave her analysis a title like a boxing match or a legal case. Mono versus Poly is now in session! All Rise! The article commenced as such (literally, its first words): “Non-monogamy is about one thing — sex. And sex is good.”
(You can tell she learned her writing style from The Bible.)
It went downhill from there, fast. Faster than I ever thought possible without jet propulsion and a lot of lube. “And sex with different people — either concurrently or over the course of a lifetime — is good too. Sex is so good that some people are addicted to it. Sex makes people do crazy things and it makes people feel amazing things. I love it just as much as anyone else, but there is more to life than sex.”
When you see the word ‘but’ you can usually tell how things are going to go. Her premise is that since polyamory is about sex, and since sex isn’t everything, polyamory is nothing special to concern oneself with. The author, whose name is Polly, continues: “I am pretty sure that the words on your deathbed won’t be, ‘I wish I had had more sex with more people’. Maybe if you’re a pervert, or if you didn’t get much action in your life, you would say that, but most people wouldn’t.”
I will spare you any more. This article, while one of the less eloquent and less favorable recent mainstream reviews of polyamory, shares one thing in common with every other article on the topic that I’ve ever seen: it sets polyamory and monogamy against one another as irreconcilable opposites.
While the author is less tactful about her prejudices, she does us the favor of expressing them overtly: for example, there is in many discussions the lurking suspicion that people who don’t claim orthodox monogamy are perverts, but the word is rarely used. Or they don’t really like relationships, and can’t handle intimacy; they just want to get laid. Facing these prejudices repeatedly is enough to push nearly anyone who tries to be openly polyamorous back into the closet.
Yet I wonder what the real issue is. Studies done over the years on the incidence of cheating reveal that 45% to 65% of women and 55% to 80% of men stray outside monogamous commitments.
The variance is because some studies ask whether people have ever cheated while in a monogamous agreement; some ask whether they have cheated in their current relationship. Other studies show that women tend to understate their sexual conquests, and men tend to exaggerate. The two stats may be much closer than the studies show. Neither sex has a claim on fidelity.
In any event, we’re talking about a large portion of the population whose definition of monogamy has at one time included, and possibly includes today, sex with more than one person. For a fast check, ask yourself: do you know anyone who hasn’t been through this at least once? How about three times? How abut five?
Notably, the accepted definition of monogamy has changed in recent decades from one partner for life (now considered archaic), to one partner at a time, as often as you feel like moving on. That’s a big difference. The revised term is ‘serial monogamy’, but I prefer to think of it as serial polyamory: we tend to have multiple partners, one at a time (that is, while we’re not having multiple partners, two or more at a time).
By any realistic description, some versions of monogamy sound a lot like polyamory. Those who are proponents of monogamy at all costs, who advance the cause of abstinence-only until heterosexual marriage for life, sound like they are in reaction to the observable data, which basically proves that most people are simply not that way; that, and living in reaction to their own feelings. So do a lot of romantics, cruising for The One. True, there are some who choose a mate for life. For some this actually works beautifully and for some it creates misery. In any event, we only know their story up until today. We don’t know about tomorrow.
No matter how we experience relationships, I would propose that there are more similarities between what we call monogamy and what we call polyamory. For one thing, they both involve modes of relationship. No matter what the outward style, relationships boil down to a one-to-one meeting between two individuals. Those meetings are set within a larger context with many complex interrelations: a community.
That community either supports the relationship or it weakens the relationship. The relationship either offers something back to society, or it does not. Who has sex with whom seems to be incidental — except for one thing, jealousy. I won’t say much about jealousy in this article, except I would state upfront that in my view, if one issue is choking off the potential of the human race, choking our relationships and doing incalculable damage to sex, that’s the one.
From Self to Self: The Inner Origin of Relationships
But let’s go back to the egg. One must be a self to have a relationship with someone else. Being a self implies an inner awareness of existence, which is a relationship to existence that is in truth a relationship to self. The quality of this core relationship determines nearly everything that follows. No matter what kind of external relationships you engage in, your primary relationship is to you.
How do you feel about your existence? Do you love yourself, judge yourself, hate yourself, struggle to ‘be yourself’? What threatens you and what makes you happy? To what extent do you take ownership of your life? What threatens or enhances your sense of existence? How do you relate to death?
And, a kind of operative question that results from all of these: why do you want to be in relationship with others? What is your motive? Most of us want relationships, but we have different drives. Is the reason to share pleasure, learning, and food? Is it to share work and a mission? Is it to exchange misery? Is the purpose to seek completion in another, or to explore your wholeness with another? Is the purpose to protect you from something or to celebrate and explore a sense of safety? Do you seek love or attachment?
Each of these themes appear to be mediated by one’s relationship to oneself. Each individual brings an agenda into the pairing, and that agenda is internally mediated. It’s usually based on a level of maturity and experience in life, and one’s level of awareness. In other words, you decide and express your agenda in a relationship based on your relationship to yourself. Notably, this is the relationship that we typically seem to lose sight of when we’re ‘in a relationship’, which might feel like losing one’s independence or sense of identity.
Many people feel like they’re a ‘different person’ when they’re with a partner, and ‘go back to being themselves’ when a relationship splits up. This is a sign of inner fragmentation.
Our inner relationship is the real thing that most of us struggle with, most of the time we’re struggling. Even if we think we’re struggling in a relationship, what we’re actually struggling with is a relationship with ourselves. If we could figure that out, we would have fewer problems and more solutions. We would know where to look for those solutions.
From One Self to Another Self: Dyad as the Basic Bond
One subject that rarely arises at polyamory conferences (the places polyamorous people come to talk about relationships, make friends and exchange information) is monogamy. I mean, it’s mentioned, but the topic of the depth of one-on-one bonds is secondary to the issue of how things are doing with the other partners, the rules of engagement with other partners, and so on. Rare is it to hear open conversation about the need to relate one-on-one or the need to be in an exclusive relationship for a while. You meet couples at polyamory conferences that are monogamous before they branch out, but I’ve never met a couple at a conference that was choosing to keep their relationship exclusive.
I think that most people who identify as polyamorous know this and honor when others do this, but individual relationships seems to play second fiddle in poly culture when in fact, so far as I can tell, they are the second most basic foundation of poly culture. The very most basic is where one stands with oneself; and the second is the quality of our one-on-one bonds.
Now ‘monogamy’ and ‘polyamory’ have a second key element in common: they both use dyadic (that is, pair) bonding as a structural basis. Strong dyads share the same basic properties, no matter what the style of relationship: they are based on agreements; they are based on honesty; they are based on a desire to share; hopefully they are based on love.
Relationships have a purpose, and they express that purpose within a tribe or community. Remember that marriage, our society’s most basic and seemingly most coveted bond, is often performed in a public ceremony, officiated by a public official (traditionally by a minister, a judge, the mayor or a sea captain). The community is generally invited as witnesses.
The relationship is presumed to have public implications and the marriage license is a public document, filed with the city clerk. This suggests that the pair bond is part of something larger: society or a community and often, a family.
Relationships involve a contract or agreement of some kind, even if that is just to be together. Whether they’re happy affairs or not usually involves whether the individuals involved feel that the agreement is honored; whether the individuals get their needs met; and whether the arrangement works for both people. These facts apply whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual, whether the individuals are members of the same race or economic class, or whether they are of similar or very different ages.
Most of us would agree with “whatever makes them happy.” Whatever makes us happy, if we can arrange it. Whether the individuals involved choose to have sex with other people would be covered by all of these concepts.
The Many: We All Have Multiple Relationships
One thing does not change, whatever kind of relationship is involved: those individuals relate to other people. Unless they are really, really lonely, they love other people and other people love them. Partners in healthy monogamous relationships have loving relationships with others. One bit of revisionist history is that the ‘nuclear family’ is the basic unit of society: parents and kids. Until recently, these relationships were set within a complex social structure called the extended family. The dyad was part of a much larger structure that included many kinds of loving relationships.
Referring back to the beginning of Polly’s article (polyamory is all about sex), the truth is our relationships are always about so much more. It verges on hilarious that someone would accuse polyamorous people in particular of focusing on sex; poly folk spend so much of their time obsessively involved with the details of their relationships it’s amazing they have any time for cooking, much less for sex. But even the ‘let’s meet at the motel for a quickie’ kind of affairs have a way of becoming deeper emotional involvements.
Yet even if we presume sexual monogamy — someone who only has physical sex with one other person, for a long time — we all have bonds and commitments with others. Some of those, while ‘nonsexual’ in the physical sense, can be profound, intimate and long-lasting connections. Imagine a man is married, in a healthy relationship with his wife. He also has a secretary who has worked for him for 20 years, and they love and trust one another deeply. They haven’t shared sex, but their bond of love is as powerful as that of any marriage. Most people would not call that polyamory; I would.
And most of us have extremely active fantasy lives. Fantasy knows no bounds; yes, some people feel guilty about it, but that usually makes it so much hotter. And fantasy takes us outside the bounds of monogamy.
One thing I’ve always found interesting is that monogamy has many rules that don’t involve sex. Some monogamous couples do not ‘allow’ one another to have close friends of the opposite sex. Some monogamous people feel threatened when their partner has any friends at all. Some don’t ‘allow’ their partner to go to community college. Some feel threatened when their partner checks out a cute guy or girl, and some encourage one another to be open about their attractions and even their erotic fantasies, unfettered. Others would be profoundly threatened by this. Still others invite their friends to have sex with them.
Since nearly everyone has sexual desires and fantasies about others, the core issue running the show — that is, the thing that determines our choice to have more than one partner, and whether to be honest about it — would seem to be jealousy. Everyone gets jealous at times; some make a religion out of it. Some make it their dharma to work through it and be free. Those who dwell on jealousy relate to others with a different set of presumptions and expectations than those who process it in a healthy way. As it turns out, in an attempt to avoid the jealousy issue, a great many have sex with others without telling their partner about it. In other words, from what I hear, many people would openly want or admit to being with more than one partner or lover if jealousy were not in the way. One common equation is, “I want to be sexual with someone else, but I’m not going to because you might, and if you do, I will be jealous.”
When we talk about polyamory, what we’re really describing is an agreement to take up all the boundaries of a relationship consciously, rather than applying a term that seems to presume the nature of those boundaries, but more often denies their existence. In other words, polyamory is what we talk about, more than what we do. Most people choose to remain silent about their sexual reality.
Why ever would we do that? Well, since your first relationship is to yourself: ask yourself.
For further reading:
Jealousy and the Abyss by William Pennell Rock
A Crazy Little Thing Called Compersion
Organic Love: An Ecology of Sustainable Relationship
Compersion Letters from Planet Waves Readers
“Suppression of the natural sexuality in the child, particularly of its genital sexuality, makes the child apprehensive, shy, obedient, afraid of authority, good and adjusted in the authoritarian sense; it paralyzes the rebellious forces because any rebellion is laden with anxiety; it produces, by inhibiting sexual curiosity and sexual thinking in the child, a general inhibition of thinking and of critical faculties. In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation. At first the child has to submit to the structure of the authoritarian miniature state, the family; this makes it capable of later subordination to the general authoritarian system. The formation of the authoritarian structure takes place through the anchoring of sexual inhibition and anxiety.”
Wilhelm Reich, from The Mass Psychology of Fascism