Polyamory and Love, Some of My Views
June 22, 2011 § Leave a comment
I recently decided to begin openly describing myself as polyamorous.
I’m not a big fan of the attitude of “your sexuality labels are public property and should come from a fixed set, so stand and deliver!” that seems to be the status quo. I’ll often resist self-defining except with people who seem to be really listening. How someone labels their sexuality just doesn’t seem to me to be that strong of an indicator of who they are or how they are in their relationships. And, well, people are liars – consider the abundance of “monogamous” cheaters. And there is an assumed norm that doesn’t have to do the work of self-defining.
However, I do see value in the willingness to claim a countercultural identity publically as an act of defiance. And even more so, I believe that talking about countercultural views and practices regarding gender, sex, and relationships with people who are generally respectful and open can make huge strides in forming allies and can be freeing since witnessing someone else think or live in a new way can give you permission. So I’ve been trying to be more open with engaged people in talking about my personal beliefs and ethics, especially around sex and relationships, which are taboo starting out.
In thinking about posting on this subject, I didn’t want it to be polyvangelism. I recently heard the term polyvangelist used to describe those of us who are poly who think it’s a good idea for everyone. I laughed and blanched, since I recognize the impulse. But I have to remember that when I’m inclined to throw the poly card, I don’t just mean that someone should have sex with multiple people. Sleeping with more people is certainly not a fix for all relational issues. As Valerie said once, “When I hear about someone whose a chronic cheater, I always think ‘polyamory,’ but then… the skill set required for cheating and the skill set require for polyamory are really not compatible.” If I think a bit harder, I usually realize that it is actually some element of the relational dynamic that seems to be causing issues and making people unhappy. It’s not the monogamy, but the romantic myth at fault.
People think of polyamory in contrast to monogamy. By plain definitions, monogamy would mean having a sexual relationship with only one person in a span of time, and polyamory would mean having sex with any number of partners. I’m all for monogamy, plain and simple. I don’t think it hurts anyone. I’ve known a lot of people who are monogamous whom I believe really know themselves and are making conscious, self-derived choices. But usually monogamy is assumed to mean not only sex with one partner, but to include vast elements of behavior and a worldview mandated by the romantic myth. The romantic myth I think destroys a lot of beautiful bonds and causes a lot of suffering in the world.
One leg of the romantic myth that chills me is the concept of “emotional monogamy.” You’re supposed to dethrone all your meaningful bonds from the past and avoid making new ones or else stand accused. Communicating, “You are doing something wrong. You are immoral,” when what we really mean is, “I am scared,” or, “I am jealous,” or, “I am realizing that I do not trust you to tell the truth,” or, “I want greater connection with you and this contrast just made me realize it,” won’t help anyone create a stronger relationship. I think it’s a way projecting feelings of possessiveness onto another person rather than taking responsibility for them and sorting them out into some deeper meaning.
If we expand polyamory to simply mean having a life of many loves, not strictly sexual, then I think it is undoubtedly a good idea for everyone. People who only have sex with one person (or one person at a time) will more likely find their relationships taxed and strained by trying to get all their needs met from that one person. If you always drink from the same well, you’ll dry it up eventually. I think these kinds of relationships are often lost simply because when conflicts arise, the only person to go to in order to process those conflicts is the person involved. I think you need a friend who feels more objective and advocates for your bond to process things with in order to bring a more enlightened and balanced mentality back to the conversation and not just have incendiary rounds of fighting every time an issue is brought up, or worse, avoid talking about it until it blows up.
I talk a lot about sexual consent on this blog, so I end up talking a lot about friends I’ve had sexual relationships with, but those are not my only or deepest bonds. I just don’t see any truth in my bonds existing in a hierarchy where “romantic” bonds are above “platonic” bonds. Nor do I see that as a particularly relevant distinction, honestly. Sex does not an entirely new beast of a relationship make, at least, not in my experience. Yet no one finds a relationship self-help books that says, “Have lots of close and lasting friendships, and you will learn a ton.” The support and skills I have needed to maintain a bond with my best friend, Emily, I imagine are exactly the same as those needed to support a loving monogamous sexual relationship, since it is a long-term bond I prioritize. Even if I only slept with one person, I would still be polyamorous, since I already have a primary partner I’m not willing to give up in Emily. I’m just willing to have more than one.
Does that mean I just don’t love people I sleep with as much? No. Looking at love bonds as a hierarchy where participants rival for affection, or simply at yourself as a limited vessel holding a finite amount of love you must pour out judiciously is a mindset simply too small for love. In “The Ethical Slut”, they call this mentality starvation economy thinking. I don’t love my best friend less because I begin to love my new lover or my other best friends more. In my experience, the opposite is actually true, that both the capacity to love and the skills involved expand as you use them.
I’m polyamorous because my priority and I believe my rightful purpose in life is to seek as much genuine love as possible, and I assume it is the right of everyone else to do the same. C.S. Lewis, who really shaped my thinking as a young person, says that God does not find our desires too big, but too small. A love ethic does not require that we want less, that we tie ourselves to a small set of people and beliefs and restrict our desires and growth outside those boundaries. It requires that we grow, that we enlarge our hearts to carry more empathy and find greater connection, that we suffer the depression of letting go of the old to replace it with the new, always seeking greater truth and connection with the divine. I find it most in other people, so I’m not willing to whittle myself down to one.