Polyamory Isn’t All About You

Hi there.  I’m Wes.  You might know me as Gina’s husband, or as Ginny’s boyfriend.  I probably won’t post very often, but I will when I find the time.  My posts will probably feature my personal philosophy, and possibly legal issues if anything interesting comes up.

Today, I want to talk about why anyone who is really in love ought to be polyamorous.  First, let’s clarify what I mean by “polyamory.”  When I talk about a polyamorous relationship, what I mean is a relationship that doesn’t have rules against either partner pursuing other sexual or romantic relationships.  You can be polyamorous without dating more than one person.  The important thing is that there is no formal or informal agreement between partners to be exclusive, and each partner enthusiastically consents to the other seeing other people.

I talk about polyamory a lot.  When I mention it, people generally say “I could never do that.  I’m too jealous.” or some variation thereof.  When pressed, it becomes clear that, generally, though people would like to be able to date more than one person in a vacuum, people don’t think it would be worth the emotional pain of having their partner be “unfaithful,” and the strain that it would put on the existing relationship, with resulting stress, animosity, fighting, etc.  All of which is a big pain in the ass.

This, I submit, is the wrong way to look at it.  The most convincing reason, to me, to be polyamorous, has nothing to do with what *I* want for myself.  The convincing argument is this: I love my partners.  For brevity’s sake, I’ll just talk about Gina, my wife, as she was the only one I was with when we decided to be polyamorous, but were I to rethink my decision today, all of this would apply equally to Jessie and Ginny.  To be monogamous would be to say to Gina “if you develop a sexual or romantic interest in someone other than me, I want you to ignore or suppress those feelings,” because exploring them would hurt me.  Put simpler, it would be saying “If you get what you want, that is bad for me.”  Monogamy, like all rules in a relationship, sets the two partners against each other.  For one to gain, the other must lose.

I wanted to be polyamorous because I wanted Gina to have the things that she wanted.  I wanted what makes her happy to also make me happy, even if it sometimes inflames my insecurities.  That’s what love is, to me.  So I don’t look the decision to be polyamorous in terms of what I’m getting out of it (though I’m getting a lot).   I look at it in terms of what it means to love someone.  I don’t understand how a person can claim to love his partner, but still seek to prevent his partner from gaining happiness in the “wrong” way.

To this, people often say “well, neither of us want to see anyone else.”  Which is great, if it’s true.  But if your partner isn’t interested in seeing anyone else, then you don’t need an exclusivity agreement.  It would be completely meaningless.  The only reason to agree to be monogamous by rule is because you anticipate the situation in which one of you wants to date someone else.  There are four possible scenarios:

Explicitly Monogamous Relationship:

1. Neither partner wants to see anyone else –> monogamy!

2. One or both partners want to see someone else –> forced monogamy, with all of the nasty implications described above

Polyamorous Relationship:

3. Neither partner wants to see anyone else –> monogamy!

4. One or both partners want to see someone else –> they do!

As you can see, if neither partner wants to see someone else, the results for an explicitly monogamous couple and a polyamorous couple are exactly the same, and no exclusivity agreement is required.

People (often people who aren’t in relationships yet) also often say “I want to meet someone who only wants me.  That’s a condition of my having an intimate relationship with someone.”  They tend to phrase this in terms of values or compatibility, as in “I only want to date people who share my values.”  And while people can set whatever goals they like, by explicitly agreeing to be monogamous, partners are still limiting each other’s future desires in the way I described.  Almost everyone feels desire for someone other than their primary partner at some point, and it’s a mug’s game to try to predict if you will or won’t, when you’re talking about a long-term relationship.  Also, If you really meet someone who doesn’t want anyone else, you don’t need the agreement.  The agreement only matters if one or both partners want to see someone else.

So next time you think about polyamory, and you’re tempted to say “I could never do that,” I urge you to think about why not.  If you truly love your partner (or will truly love your theoretical future partner), isn’t it the only thing that makes sense?

24 responses to “Polyamory Isn’t All About You

  1. Der….. what the what? You had my attention up until this bogus blanket statement Wes:

    “Monogamy, like all rules in a relationship, sets the two partners against each other. For one to gain, the other must lose.”

    Rules are not necessarily set to pit people against each other. In a truly loving relationship rules can help to improve communication and trust. For example, I have been in very successful poly relationships but we still had “rules.” We relied on the rules we established in order to protect and cherish each other. It is a way to show respect.

  2. Rules in a relationship set partners against each other? That certainly is news to me. I’d rather say that a functioning relationship is hardly possible without rules.

    I bet you, Wes, do have rules. There are things your partner could do that would deeply upset you, that would perhaps even make you end this relationship. Maybe if one of your partners turned into a Scientologist. Maybe if they had unprotected sex with other people. Maybe if they smoked or only showered every ten days. If you applied the reasoning that saying “If you get what you want, that is bad for me” is wrong, then you can’t really say anything against your partner gambling or being an alcoholic, either.

    I bet you are very aware of the things that would be unacceptable to you as a partner. So you make a rule about them, implicitly or explicitly. But you do – like everyone else does. And of course those rules don’t mean at all that you are a bad partner, or that you are setting yourself against your partner. You are instead openly dealing with your expectations and needs, which I believe is the actual core idea of polyamory.

    Sexual exclusivity is just one possible rule. Partners should indeed not set themselves against each other. But even as a polyamorous person, I see nothing wrong with monogamy; heck, I know people for which I think it is the perfect fit. And I think many of those that say “well I would like to have sex with other people, but don’t want to hurt my partner” may indeed have a point: polyamory is much more complicated and takes much more relationship work than monogamy.

  3. When I say that all rules in a relationship set the partners against one another, I don’t mean that relationships shouldn’t have rules. I just mean that people should be cautious about setting rules, because rules, by their nature, place one partner’s needs and desires over the other’s.

    As I explained above, the ONLY time a rule regarding exclusivity has any effect whatsoever is when one or both partners does not want to be exclusive. The rule operates to place the desire of the partner who wants exclusivity over the desire to the person who does not. If neither partner desires to be non-monogamous, then the rule is completely unnecessary.

    This reasoning can be applied to any rule in a relationship. This doesn’t mean that nobody should ever have rules. It just means that people should have as few rules as possible, and that the more loving and trusting a relationship, the fewer rules are required.

    There are certainly things that are unacceptable to me, as a partner, but none of these are things that will make my partners happier. If my partner wanted to become an alcoholic, I would try to talk her out of it in terms of how it would make her unhappy, not how it would make me unhappy. If my partner wanted to do something that would truly make her a happier person, I would want her to do that, and I would try my hardest to be happy for her. And I trust her ability (assuming we’ve had a nice long talk about it) to determine for herself what will make her happy.

    This, of course, doesn’t apply to ever partner I’ve ever had. Some I haven’t loved. There have been some whose judgment I haven’t trusted. That’s only something you get to after spending significant time with a person. There’s nothing wrong with a relationship that isn’t completely loving or trusting. My above point is that IF you love and trust your partner enough, there is no need to be monogamous by rule.

    Aside: here is a good post by Franklin Veaux on rules in polyamorous relationships: http://www.polyamoryonline.org/articles/rules.html

  4. I disagree with what you say on two levels. First, you are correct that a rule seems unnecessary if nobody has the desire for not being exclusive. But I’d argue that it’s still better to explicitly talk about it and make a rule out of it than not, It doesn’t hurt: nobody is held back. But it means that whenever the facts should change and the rule should start holding someone back, that someone will have the obligation to take the initiative and talk about changing the rules. That is very important: if you talk about a rule change when the desire changes, it’s much less of a problem than after you’ve e.g. had sex with someone else.

    My conjecture: it is always better to talk about your expectations about each other than not, and if you find something would hurt you that your partner doesn’t want to do *right now*, make a rule about it. This comes at no cost as long as what your partner wants doesn’t change, so there is absolutely no possible downside from this.

    Second: You write “There are certainly things that are unacceptable to me, as a partner, but none of these are things that will make my partners happier.” That is quite useful and makes things easier for you, I think. Lucky you! But if one partner is happier when they know their partner doesn’t sleep with anyone else, that is equally valid, right?

    The real question you have to ask to have a valid comparison is: what *if* something that was unacceptable to you (as in, you’d break up over it) would make one of your partners happier?

    Then you will obviously have to either break up or find a compromise, just like a monogamous couple. For monogamy, this compromise might be “I also won’t sleep with anyone else”. Or “If one of us sleeps with someone else, it will be a threesome involving both of us”. Or “Only if it’s same sex”. There is a plethora of other possibilities, I’m sure – but if both partners consent on one such possibility, then who are you to judge?

    Also, I believe you are underestimating that effective rules may be some sort of cost-benefit-calculation. To name an arbitrary example from the poly world: I think it is valid if someone agrees to a rule against fluid-bonding with new partners *even* if they don’t like the rule/don’t see the risks involved/think it’s bullshit. Why would they agree to it then, you might ask? Because they believe their discomfort of using a condom is disproportionally lower than the discomfort their partner would have from them fluid-bonding with others. To compare this to the mono world: someone might want to be sexually intimate with others, but not consider it important enough. They want to make their partner happy and think they can achieve this quite easily by not having sex with others. Totally valid.

    Phew, long post… hope it gives you something to think about. 🙂

    PS: Franklin’s rules were written with the polyamorous in mind, not the monogamous. His experiences and “best practices” have to do with what works and doesn’t work in poly arrangements, and while I completely agree there, I think that monogamy is just a completely different topic that needs completely different rules to work. And then it can work equally well.

  5. Pyr, as a formerly monogamous person wishing to be open/poly, your stated examples of compromise within a monogamous/monogamish relationship are not likely to work. A threesome is not a viable option because the partner who does not wish to open up the relationship is still going to begrudge the attention their partner is giving someone else, in addition to having to struggle with their conclusion that they are not attracted to anyone else- how do you “play nice” with someone in a sexual situation that you have no interest in or possibly resent?

    The same-sex option is astoundingly offensive, it suggests that a heterosexual partner is at a disadvantage to their bisexual partner in the relationship. To have an “apples and oranges” attitude about it is selfish and unreasonable; if you are only attracted to “apples” too bad, you’re screwed? It doesn’t matter how much you love apple pie, some days you want a caramel apple, it doesn’t mean you like/love apple pie any less and that pie cannot alter itself to become a caramel apple, nor should it be expected to do so or to feel guilty about it.

    These “compromises” ultimately involve one partner getting what they want without any real comfort being supplied to the partner who is trying to make rules that “sound like a compromise”.

    • Jessie,
      I merely named examples that I know of in monogamous relationships I know and where this turned out well. I cannot judge how likely to work such compromises are – and neither can you, I believe. Otherwise please present me with the data that shows how such examples are “not likely to work”.

      But this likeliness is not the point anyways. What makes a compromise a compromise is that both partners see it this way. Neither you nor me should judge the decisions other people make for themselves and their own relationships, I think… and, I think staying together instead of breaking up is a hell big of a point of real comfort being supplied.

      I am not talking about one partner making rules alone, by the way. That never works, neither in poly nor in mono. No need to criticise that here; it’s a completely separate issue.

      • I said “not likely” in terms of a partner who is strictly monogamous, mostly in the circumstance where jealousy is the prevalent reason or in the case of the “one true love” ideal, these are the dominant reasons I have been exposed to by monogamous-minded people. Your data and my data suggest opposing outcomes, which is good for your friends and unfortunate for mine. I should not speak as though it hasn’t to me, I have always had a monogamish attitude, if my partner was not getting enough attention I encouraged him to accept it from others who were offering it, and I was “allowed” to have interactions too, as long as they were with women. I am not bisexual, so this was a one-sided standard that became a problem when I wanted to become polyamorous at which time my partner wanted to forfeit his ability to get attention elsewhere.

        “I think staying together instead of breaking up is a hell big of a point of real comfort being supplied” The ‘security’ of staying together is not always the healthiest, happiest option. Being with one person who loves you (in some cases conditionally) is not necessarily a favorable outcome when you have to suppress every attraction you might have to another person for the rest of your life.If you have loved someone before your current partner, it is unrealistic to expect that you will not feel that way about someone again. This post is about polyamory, and how having a closed-minded monogamous relationship sets boundaries and makes rules that does not prepare partners for potential outcomes involving extraneous physical and emotional attraction. I am calling into question the two sides of the decision to stay together or break up- staying together means sustaining the comfort and security of the established relationship that has had a lot of work put into it and the love has been deemed worthwhile but both partners might continue to conduct their relationship having incriminating thoughts about cheating. Breaking up means losing someone who loves you and who you have invested time and energy in to try finding a more compatible partner.

        I was also making the case that it is the monogamous partner that isn’t getting what they want with compromises about threesomes and same sex arrangements, it creates a false sense of control over the situation. If the partner wishing to have extraneous relationships is the one proposing these rules/compromises, they might not be getting the full extent of their needs while their partner is still feeling vulnerable to jealousy, inferiority, being replaced, etc while still struggling to accommodate the arrangement without feeling screwed over. I’m not judging people in this scenario, individuals are the only ones who can decide what is best for their own lives and relationships.

  6. This essay takes a good concept and then somehow makes the whole thing look like monogamy is a uniquely unfair and selfish social contract.

    Thinking about a partner being in an intimate relationship with somebody else as something that isn’t all about you is a perfectly good thought process… when you’re already able to handle polyamorous relationships or desire to be. The reality is, though, that just like there are people who are naturally poly, there are people who just flat out do not desire their partner to have other intimate partners.

    And that isn’t about you. It’s about them and their needs and their desires. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Basically you’re saying “Well, you’re making this all about you, you’re putting your needs on a higher pedestal than your partner’s, and you should question that.” And then you don’t give even one really good reason why the same thing doesn’t apply to people who are in a monogamous relationship who want to explore outside that paradigm. They are equally putting their needs and desires over that of their partner’s… but you aren’t seeing that, you only see the fault of “forced” monogamy. But it’s NOT “forced monogamy” because you have every ability to break up with that person and find somebody open to your polyamory if you so choose to.

    It’s not an issue unique to monogamy. That’s where this essay fails.

  7. I’m sorry you seem to have nothing but negative responses to your post so far. This appears to be a classic situation with people feeling defensive in their decisions or positions and scrabbling to defend their right (and righteousness) to limit other people. There is also a lot of confusing rules for boundaries.

    I don’t have the time or energy to address all the fallacious arguments when they have been addressed, ad nauseum, in other locations, but I did want you to see that there is support for your position.

    I don’t have rules in my relationships, I have boundaries. I am also polyamorous because of what it does for my partners, and what I get out of it is a bonus – a side benefit. The happiness of my partners is integral to my own, and to limit their happiness just because *I* have an insecurity does not say “love” to me. I would rather learn how to not be insecure, than to break my partners’ hearts and tell them that they can’t do something that would make them happy because my “right” to be insecure trumps my desire for their happiness.

    Kudos for saying so out loud.

  8. A few responses to above comments:

    My conjecture: it is always better to talk about your expectations about each other than not, and if you find something would hurt you that your partner doesn’t want to do *right now*, make a rule about it. This comes at no cost as long as what your partner wants doesn’t change, so there is absolutely no possible downside from this.

    First off, the obvious downside is that what one party wants probably will change. Almost everyone, at some point, feels an attraction to someone other than their partner. That doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to act on it, but it might.

    The real problem is that, by making the rule, you’re saying that IF what you want changes, then you are NOT to act on it, or there will be consequences. What polyamory says is that IF what you want changes, then your partner wants you to explore that. Which is the more loving attitude?

    What your attitude does is that it passes the buck to your future selves to make the decision. It’s saying “let’s not decide now. Let’s wait until it’s a problem to see how we feel.” Maybe it might never become a problem, but maybe it might. Isn’t that good information to have ahead of time?

    But if one partner is happier when they know their partner doesn’t sleep with anyone else, that is equally valid, right?

    Depends on whose perspective you’re talking about. If my partner says “I’m happier if you don’t sleep with anyone else,” if I really love her (and trust her judgment), I won’t sleep with anyone else.

    BUT this is not a good thing for our relationship. It means that if sleeping with someone else would make me a happier person, then my partner wants me to be less happy in order to increase her own happiness.

    From my perspective, I would never say that to a partner. Sure, there are some things that she could do that would take away from my happiness for good reasons. Things like spending all of our money, hitting our dog, never coming home, etc. Those are things that would have a direct effect on something that I value (money, the dog, spending time with her).

    The difference is that the only thing that is intrinsic to nonmonogamy that upsets people is that their partner is getting pleasure from someone who isn’t them. The whole point of sexual exclusivity (aside from practical considerations regarding disease and pregnancy, which can be effectively managed, and don’t seem to stop single people) is the desire to be the only outside source of sexual pleasure to your partner. My point in the above post is that this attitude is the opposite of love.

    I completely get why people agree to rules. What I’m saying is that I don’t see why someone who claims to be in love INSISTS on rules.

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  16. I think for some of what you say you should use the word “swinging” or “swinger” instead of polyamory. This coming from someone in a polyamorous relationship.

  17. Polylovinggirl

    I think we spend much too much time labeling things. Whether its poly, because that’s what his particular situation is, whether its open, swinging ect, if we just replace it with non-monogamy it works.

    There will always be some boundaries, I am in a poly relationship and poly is my happy place. But I have been in all kinds of non monogamous relationships and even tried some monogamous ones.

    Each relationship defines itself, but I totally get what he was trying to say here. I also don’t think non monogamy is for everyone.

  18. pavewilliamsburgover

    Yeah… I’ve got to call bullshit, too. “All rules in a relationship” don’t set two partners against each other. Not wanting your mate to have sex with anyone else isn’t pitting yourselves against each other. Every relationship needs boundaries, and what you’re describing here sounds like some call for relationship anarchy: “Rules are bad! True love is absolute freedom!” Carpe scrotum!

    I love how so many in the poly community seem to have this unspoken belief that they’re more “evolved” than those in monogamous relationships. I’ve been in both and invariably, it seems like polys use the “lifestyle” to legitimise what is essentially promiscuity. Sleep with whomever you wish, and make no excuses for your choices. But don’t dress it up as some forward-thinking “new definition of love”. Intellectually justifying one’s desire to sleep with many partners may make it sound less unsavory than than being a “slut”, but it perpetuates the culture of shame that surrounds sex with multiple partners. Just do it and own your behaviour. If it makes you feel bad, stop. But don’t rationalize it by dressing it up in sheep’s clothing, and then thinking you’re way ahead of all those conformists.

    • @Pave – First, there actually is a strain of poly called “relationship anarchy,” and while I’m unsure that I’m completely able to subscribe to it, it’s got some great ideas, and I suggest you check it out.

      ” I’ve been in both and invariably, it seems like polys use the ‘lifestyle’ to legitimise what is essentially promiscuity”

      I can’t speak to your experience, so if that’s how it’s been, I’m sorry that happened to you. My experience is very different. The polyamorous people I know display varying degrees of promiscuity (although, as a group, they tend to be much less promiscuous than single people), and I support everyone being as promiscuous (or not promiscuous) as they choose.

      As for rules setting partners against each other, of course they do! If the partners didn’t have divergent interests, no rules would be required. Partners would just do what they wanted, and it would work out. But as I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have rules; we should just be careful about them.

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