Here is a can of worms. Please sit down, make yourself comfortable, and watch as I try to sort them into delicate piles without squishing any of them.
I’m in a monogamous relationship. For me, that means that my partner and I both lust desperately after other people, but we try not to do anything about it, save sighing and making the odd comment about how beautiful those other people are.
When I tell people this, often they’re surprised, and some of them make efforts to persuade me that I really should consider opening up my relationship. That it’d be healthier if my guy and I could see other people, or that polyamory is actually the best course of action for everybody in the human race. I like the sound of it: I do. I like the idea that there’s a hell of a lot of love in the world, and you get to share lots of different kinds of love with lots of different people.
Thing is, I’ve tried it, and it sucks for me. It really sucks. I get jealous, angry, upset, and anxious. I feel worthless. My rational brain tells me that he can fuck other people without it having any bearing on how he feels about me, and that if he goes for a drink with a girl he fancies with a view to potentially snogging her at the end of the evening, that act itself isn’t sapping any of the fun or love that he and I share together.
Unfortunately, my irrational brain is a tedious Iago – piping up and screeching “I like not that!”, and ruining everyone’s fun.
Nonmonogamy is awesome for some people
Having stated my credentials as someone who is utterly crap at nonmonogamy, I’d be a twat if I filled this section with my own guesses about how other people go about these relationships, so here are a few blogs by some people who know far more than I do.
ArchedEyebrowBR, who is consistently amazing in a number of ways, has written on what nonmonogamy is. Here’s one from a long-ago guest blogger, who had a bit of a chat with me about poly, in which she took down a fair few of the lazy assumptions I had about it at the time. And here’s a super-gorgeous romantic blog from Pervocracy, about a non-exclusive relationship that works really well for them and gives me all the squishy feelings.
So: non-exclusive relationships, whether they’re casually open, polyamorous, or however people want to arrange them and whatever they want to call them, can be spectacular. Unfortunately, people in nonmonogamous relationships have been on the receiving end of a hell of a lot of shit, with conservative, judgmental people claiming it’s unnatural, promiscuous, or any number of things that realistically aren’t anyone else’s business. So they fight these assumptions, quite rightly, and they push back against the judgmental bullshit.
Unfortunately, some people push back so far it ends up toppling a bunch of other guys over.
Is monogamy unnatural?
The other day I stumbled across a blog which explained to me why monogamy is ‘just not natural.’ The blogger is actually not arguing for nonmonogamy, rather that the default way for people to conduct relationships is on a kind of serial-monogamy basis. Long-ish relationships that are never ‘for life’.
“Up until ten thousand years ago, we were not monogamous because it made no sense from an evolutionary standpoint. For survival, nature prefers a strategy of mixing genes for as large a variety of specimens as possible.”
She also says:
“Studies show that in nature, life-long, exclusive partnership rarely exist. Even in animals that were long viewed as sexually monogamous.”
Uh-oh. Using evolutionary theory to support the complexities of human ethical behaviour based on flimsy evidence? It happens a lot in the world of sex and dating advice, so when it happens my hackles are immediately up, as they would be if someone said:
“Oh but biology says that guys are programmed to hunt so is it surprising that they catcall women?”
“Women are naturally nurturing so they should look after the children.”
Arguments like this are far too simplistic. We are the product of evolution, sure, and there are certain things about people that are influenced in part by the way we’ve developed over thousands of years. But implying that we are that, and only that, makes a mockery of everything else we are: our culture, our society, our ability to exert willpower, our empathy and morality: our nurture.
Sure, nature tells us to do certain things. But our nurture often tells us to do otherwise. We often choose to do otherwise, and deliberately eschew the kind of behaviour that, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, we should be embracing. Claiming that a particular relationship style is ‘unnatural’ leaves a pretty gross taste in the mouth. What are we, the Westboro fucking Baptist Church?
Monogamy is possessive and cruel
So if we don’t accept the ‘monogamy is unnatural’ argument, where does that leave us? Well, I got a pretty interesting comment on a blog post I wrote a while ago, in which I lamented my drunken fuckups and the fact that every now and then I go to the boy and say ‘argh, sorry, I snogged someone in the pub.’ Commenter audren pointed out that
‘In general, people should not commit to things for which the other would have to spy on them to know they failed to keep their promise.’
Which is an interesting point, I think. Is it bad to ask for exclusivity given that the only way you’ll know if someone has broken your agreement is if you spy on them? Perhaps. My gut reaction to this was that, even in a nonmonogamous relationship there are rules and boundaries.
If, for instance, you broke off an evening engagement with one of your partners at the last minute, claiming you were sick, then went out with someone else instead, I suspect that in most nonmonogamous relationships that’d be considered a shitty thing to do. And in order to find out, you’d have to spy or dig to work out that’s what the other person had done. The problem isn’t in making the original commitment – the problem is in breaking someone’s trust, or in a relationship in which the trust has been so eroded (or so bitterly given) that one person would actually delve into the activities of the other, like a crap detective insistent on discovering the miserable truth.
But the commenter also says:
‘I have yet to read convincing arguments that sex is somehow so different from everything else that I have a right to expect exclusivity, whereas I am considered a controlling phsycho if I get mad at my wife for going out to the movies with friends without telling me.’
I agree that we do tend to see sex in a different category to the way we see other activity – going to the movies, going for dinner, etc. But I don’t think this is exclusive to monogamous relationships. While any decent human accepts that a partner requires social contact, friendliness and love outside a particular relationship (family love and friendship, for example), rightly or wrongly sex is elevated to something different: either exclusive or negotiated. In my experience, it’s rare for polyamorous people to be totally fine with ‘anything goes, whether you tell me or not’, whether that’s from a simple sexual health perspective (I’d rather you didn’t shag anyone else without a condom/up-to-date STI tests) or from a more emotional perspective (I’d like to know in advance when you’re dating other people, so I don’t end up planning something cool for us then ending up alone on a Friday night).
Moreover, I think that equating nonmonogamy to a simple sexual free-for-all jars with what I’ve read and heard from people who practice it. With the exception of swinging (and even then there are often friendships surrounding the fucking), most nonmonogamy is about more than just finding a bunch of other people to rub genitals with. Partnerships and group dynamics are often supportive, loving and friendly in ways that go beyond (and often don’t even extend to) sex itself.
They’re still more open than monogamous relationships though, and I’ll concede that I certainly do ask my boy not to fuck anyone else, whereas I wouldn’t tell him not to go to the cinema with his mates. But I don’t think it’s a means of exerting control: it’s done in the spirit of love and compromise with which we try to do everything. We negotiate a tonne of stuff – where we’ll spend Christmas, when we’ll fill out a mortgage application, what TV we can and cannot watch alone (I’m allowed to watch The Apprentice without him but if I touch the new episode of The Walking Dead he will whimper like the saddest of puppies).
At no point is any of this behaviour (sexual or otherwise) dictated by one person and resented by the other. I haven’t told him that he can’t fuck anyone, and he hasn’t dictated that to me. We’ve tested nonmonogamy, and while it worked quite beautifully for me to begin with, it was always miserable for him and for me it quickly turned sour. So even though in the short term we both stare at and lust after other people, in the long term we’ve decided that monogamy works pretty damn well for us. If one or other of us changes our mind, we’ll talk about it.
In defence of monogamy
Monogamy is the most comfortable kind of relationship for me, even though I waver sometimes. I fuck up and I fail, and none of my relationships have ever been close to perfect, but that doesn’t mean that I have to try and force myself into a dynamic that doesn’t work.
While I bloody LOVE being able to write blog posts that conclude ‘OMG this is SUCH BULLSHIT’, my conclusion this time naturally has to be a bit more muted. Relationships (both monogamous and nonmonogamous) are naturally complex things. All of them involve a certain amount of negotiation, discussion and compromise. The key thing isn’t whether your relationships ‘fit’ a template that someone else has created, but whether they make you and your partners happy.
So please do push back if someone tells you that the way you ‘do’ relationships is wrong: whether it’s your parents telling you to settle down with one person, or a nonmonogamous friend telling you that you’d be much happier if you just did it like she did. I totally understand the spirit in which a nonmonogamous person might assert that monogamy isn’t natural, or that it’s unnecessarily controlling. For the same reason, when my Dad tells me I must produce a grandchild I’m liable to respond with ‘I am not a BREEDING CAVERN’, and end up upsetting those for whom ‘having children’ is one of their key life goals. When unjustly pushed to conform to a particular type of lifestyle, we’re liable to push back – hard – and accidentally topple a whole bunch of other people over.
Edited to add – I’ve just seen Meg John Barker’s excellent overview of monogamy + polyamory – please do check it out because Meg John is eloquent and succinct and always brilliant.