Why I don’t vibe with monogamy

Thought I ought to hit the ground running with something nice and provocative, and this is a question I get asked a lot. Perhaps not framed in those terms (usually it is in terms of vicarious glee or uncomfortable shock), but it is clearly a topic that bears endless discussion.

So let’s start with a few myths. Number one – monogamy is the only option for a committed relationship. For many people it is so ingrained as to appear unquestionable, but that doesn’t mean it is. I’m sure Mr Sartre would agree that the very fact that alternatives exist shows that monogamy is a choice.

At which point perhaps Sigmund would pipe up that the decision pathways involved have simply become subsumed into the subconscious.* The fact that monogamy has in this way become our default option makes evolutionary sense – humans are k-strategists, investing lots of resources in relatively few offspring, so it helps a mother to know who her child’s father is.

That isn’t to say it is always the default option – witness the penchant of powerful men for harems and concubines. And it doesn’t mean the decision pathway can’t be questioned. Indeed, every one of my monogamous relationships was an attempt to do just that. And my current relationship is an example of what’s possible when that questioning leads you to someplace new.

Which brings me neatly to a second myth: monogamy = fidelity. From where I’m sitting this is easily disputable. My non-monogamous relationship is deeply faithful, loving, honest, communicative and self-aware. In fact it has to be if we’re going to play outside the normal rules and still be happy.

So how did I end up questioning my decision pathway?

I’ve never been jealous about physical things. This is hard to explain because I just sort of grew up like it. With hindsight I can explain it along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t want anyone to treat me as a possession, claiming sole access to another person’s body is doing just that, so I shouldn’t make that claim if I won’t accept others making it of me.’ That’s a totally retrospective cheat though, there’s no way I was reasoning like that at 14, I just didn’t feel jealous.

I do get emotionally jealous. This seems to split into two categories. The first I experience a lot – I want to be the apple of my loved one’s eye, which means I must rank first in everything, which means I’m gonna sulk if you say your mum’s breadmaker bread is better than mine (even when I know it is better, and that that has no bearing on how much I’m loved – it’s hard to be rational sometimes!)

The second I don’t really suffer from, because it’s something where I have worked to become rational. This is the fear that if your partner likes someone else they will eventually leave you. The reason this doesn’t upset me is not because I’m so supremely confident/arrogant that I think Jonty could never like anyone else more than he likes me. Quite the opposite in fact, I am fine with this because I can accept that it could happen, and it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it did.

This perhaps sounds pessimistic or even nihilistic but just as you can never own another person’s body, you can certainly never own their mind, and you can’t make them keep loving you. You can make someone promise to pretend they still love you even if they don’t (my thoughts about marriage can wait for another time!), but who does that really benefit?

The way I see it, someone who’s never so much as looked at another girl, let alone cheated on his wife, can still fall head over heels with the new secretary (or someone less clichéd) and realise that his current relationship isn’t working. Whether or not he sleeps with the secretary before or after he confronts his feelings about his wife won’t affect the end point, it will just change the speed at which that point is reached.

Basically, people only end relationships with good reason, sex is never usually reason enough – if it seems to be it’s because it is a symptom of something more. If that something more is too big a thing to fix you are better off knowing about it and moving on.

Monogamy piles veto upon veto in order to try and protect against this, but all it does is build castles in the sky. It doesn’t do any favours in the long run. This is my point of view, of course. I recognise that there are no value systems you can attach to realtionship choices – yours are just as valid as mine – and I’d love some hard core monogamists to ‘splain me why I’m wrong.

*Putting my words into the mouths of famous people is a sneaky trick, you shouldn’t let me get away with it



  Sabrina wrote @

Very thought provoking article Lou (and I appear to be the first commenter, yay!) I particularly liked this part:

This perhaps sounds pessimistic or even nihilistic but just as you can never own another person’s body, you can certainly never own their mind, and you can’t make them keep loving you.

  Anonymous wrote @

I suppose my partner and I would not be regarded as traditionally monogamous as she can play with others (women only so far). However I am consulted so it can be argued that it is a sort of monogamy.

I think for most moving away from traditional monogamy is an on-going journey. Once you are more secure in yourself and the relationship I think you fell less threatened/more open to new experiences. Also the range of activities/partners can expand during the journey.

As long as all people involved are OK I will maintain it is an individual choice.

  elle wrote @

I definitely agree that it is an on-going journey.

And it’s interesting that while it’s easier to move forwards in small steps, every so often you still reach a point where you just don’t know if you’re going to be ok with something or not.

The really hard thing is when you are able to say, I don’t know, but let’s try it anyway. Of course, it makes a big difference if you know you can go back to your partner and say, actually, I wasn’t completely ok with that, let’s talk about why.

Lots of trust needed from both sides, which is why I think ‘alternative’ relationships can have so much strength.

  Chiarina Darrah wrote @

Having just come out of a sticky situation where I unwittingly became involved with someone who was in an open relationship, I can say that there are other ways of looking at the pros and cons of monogamy/polyamory.

Maybe it’s possible to love two people, albeit in different ways, at once. But is it really possible to be kind and respectful to both? You can only really be committed to one at once. I would guess that most people would like to be in relationships where the amount of committment they give is reciprocated. I think that if you do meet someone who genuinely feels the same about open relationships as you, then fair enough. But by the time you find out whether they really do or not, you risk really hurting someone. Even if you are upfront with someone about the fact that you may never be able to commit to them, are you really giving them a choice? If they say it’s ok, they might just compromising, given that as you’re telling them, you’re both probably emotionally involved already, and they may feel they don’t want to lose that. But that doesn’t sound fair to me, seeing as you already got involved enough to be having that conversation; you may be forcing a very painful choice upon someone, and doing so could be judged as callous.

So my question would be, how do you justify to yourself the high emotional hazard and risk level to other people of this choice that you make?

Just curious….I know that we’re coming from really different angles on this one, and I appreciate what you’re saying about not feeling like you can make someone love you forever etc., or know that you too will always be in love forever. (This, incidentally, makes me think of non-monogamy as being a premptive way of dealing with fear of abandonment/rejection, which qvs with some of your other posts perhaps). But then why not do one thing at a time? Not just for the sake of the principal relationship, but also to avoid the risk of fucking up other people (that you may love dearly) and therefore oneself?

In principle, I can think of ways that I would think of polyamory as being ok; but in practice, I see it as really ethically problematic.

So…hit me….with ‘how to be ethically polyamorous…practically’


  elle wrote @

That’s a good question, but also a very big question. I’ll do my best to give some answers.

First, I need to be honest and declare my interests, or lack of – my relationship isn’t open to the extent that it involves highly structured secondary relationships with other people. My own experiences are much more loosely structured around orgies/friends with privileges &tc.

Any extrapolation from that position has been influenced by the experiences of other friends and (I’m about to throw any credibility I might have had out of the window) things I read on the internet (but in books too, they’re credible, right?).

That said, I think you can be ethical in absolutely everything you do in life. You need to a) know that only you are responsible for the things that you feel – other people act, but you are not passive at the hand of your reactions, you guide them; b) take responsibility for communicating about your feelings with all the people that need to know.

To combine a) and b), someone might do something that makes you feel really jealous, this is sucky and feels horrible, but the other person didn’t reach into your brain and fire those specific neurones. So instead of getting mad at the other person for making you feel something unpleasant, you need to talk to them about it and figure out exactly why you felt that way, and whether one or both of you should look to do something different in the future.

Anyway, c) is the shortest and therefore obviously the hardest – you need to trust that all the people you’re interacting with are also following a) and b). This often isn’t the case.

More specifically regards your post. You’ve obv read some of my wedding confusion, and I am a bit genuinely unsure of myself there (rather macabrely, as a teenager I always assumed I wouldn’t live past my 20s, don’t know why, but all this peering into the distant future that comes with a wedding is a new thing for me).

But, when it comes down to it, I am genuine about the commitment I have already made to my boy. I just don’t think commitment is a finite commodity. It’s not a case of being 70% committed to one relationship, and therefore having 30% commitment left over for the cute barista with the pierced lip.

The reason you can be 100% committed to more than one person, is that you can do it in more than one way. The goal of a committed relationship isn’t always two people moving in together and spending the rest of their lives together.

One of my friends has said many times that she hates the thought of another person continually in her private space, and is happiest when she is a mistress to a man with his own home to go back to.

Also, not every poly relationship has to take the form of a couple who have lesser relationships with third parties. Perhaps you have three people who all fuck each other, live together, and grow old together.

I’m rambling sorry, back to your points – “So my question would be, how do you justify to yourself the high emotional hazard and risk level to other people of this choice that you make?”

This seems to me a very one-sided way of looking at it. Very few relationships, monogamous or otherwise, work by one person saying “I want this” and another going “I don’t, but gee, I’m emotionally invested now, so I guess I’ll just have to go along with whatever you say.”

Everyone is in charge of their own lives and their own actions. Sometimes this means exposing yourself to something emotionally hazardous, but this is true of any relationship.

If we want to live, we can’t hope always to protect ourselves from emotional harm, all we can do is be honest to everyone, and hope they are honest back.

Does this make sense? Hope so, and hope you write back. Am keen to hear what you think. If you want a bit of poly reading check out some of the links in the sidebar, or pick up a copy of The Ethical Slut. It’s a bit right-on, 70s lesbian feminism, but they have some really sensible things to say.

Elle xx

  Chiarina Darrah wrote @

I think that it is important in any emotional interaction to know that you can go some extent towards controlling your reactions to things, helping what you feel, ‘reframing’ and processing all these mental things constructively, and that you shouldn’t take responsibility for the stuff someone else should be emotionally dealing with (happiness, existential angst). So there we agree to some extent.
However, I also feel that you can’t just obliterate what you’re feeling and say….that’s not a ‘valid’ response, I’m just going to choose to be happy/not angry/not jealous…that’s why ‘reframing’ is ‘reframing’ and not replacing. People do have misplaced emotions, but usually emotions are telling you useful things about situations, they’re a mechanism for coding infinite environmental situations into a smaller dimension so you can decide what to do next, with an added imperative too. So I think you can go too far in trying to shout down in this case, negative feelings.
Therefore I tend to think it’s not fair to someone to say in absolute terms that jealousy is just an negative emotion that needs getting over, and that jealousy in someone provoked by your behaviour is their problem, not yours? I would say that jealousy might serve the useful function of making sure that your valid emotional needs are met.

You’re saying that committment, like love, takes different forms, so no need to express it as a finite thing. So no need for jealousy. Fair enough.
Also, rather than getting angry, talking it out and being honest and thinking about need for change is always the best way in any situation, I agree on that.

My question was biased because I was thinking specifically of a situation where the kind of commitment that the parties want to give and receive overlaps. In that case you can’t give the same kind of committment to more than one person, and there are therefore inevitably problems.
I’m sure that if I had been involved with someone with a much more developed idea of what their open relationship meant to them and their partner; and who valued respect and etiquette more highly, I would have come out much less scathed and scathing about the possible consequences or certain models of polyamory. But I’ve always felt more monogamous-inclined than not (not that I am an angel, or morally irreproachable, like everybody else). And I think that even if the matter were handled respectfully and well, I would appreciate it, but I’d just choose not to participate in the end.

I think it’s so easy just to have a gut feeling about something (monogamy/non monogamy) and then find a million different ways to reasonably justify the respective viewpoints. We all do it, I think there’s no way we would ever ‘convince’ each other that one way has more merit than the other.

So yeah, I can see that you’re thinking about what you’re doing, that emotional pain is unavoidable in any kind of relationship, that certain scenarios (and particular ideas/needs of committment) are more compatible than others, and that honesty and respect help a lot.

But goddamnit, I still can’t help feeling ‘not for me!’ 🙂

But ooh. Orgies. Am curious. I went to a club in Berlin a few times where everyone went to hang out naked/in undies/in fetish depending on the night and chose to do whatever they wanted to do. It was super interesting, the boundaries, the atmosphere, how social cues and body language change when people are near/all naked. But wouldn’t participate if I were doing the potential long term thing in love thing at the time….so complicated!

I can see how being forced to confront issues of loyalty and trust and other things because of ethical polyamory could be really strengthening. But I think you can face these things anyway in a monogamous relationship too, if that’s how you like your relationship to be.

Anyway, ramble ramble ramble!
Have we got anywhere at all?
I guess we got to think about ourselves a lot.
More thoughts?

C x

  elle wrote @

I think we are actually quite aligned here, we just want different things from our relationships.

This is a great way of thinking about feelings:

Emotions are a mechanism for coding infinite environmental situations into a smaller dimension so you can decide what to do next

and I didn’t mean to imply that jealously is negative and should therefore be suppressed or shut down. I was trying to get at the idea that often our response to negative emotions is to blame the person who made us feel them, and it is this I don’t think is valid.

Jealousy is indeed a useful function for making sure our emotional needs are met, but just feeling jealous doesn’t meet them. You need to step back a bit and break your feelings down (I was gonna say deconstruct but it sounded too wanky!) – why exactly are you jealous, what are your specific fears – and that moves the initial jealousy on, often into something more positive.

For me, those conversations about emotions have never come easily (writing about them is a different matter, this blog keeps me sane!), so being in an open relationship has almost forced my hand on that kind of communication – if you don’t sit down and talk about all the good and bad things you’re feeling, your relationship will never survive having extra people in it.

I appreciate that a healthy monogamous relationship needs and can find honest communication as well, but I’ve found a trust and a strength in my current relationship that I never got from any of my ‘normal’ ones.

I understand the “poly – not for me” gut feeling. I’ve felt the same about monogamy since I was a teenager, except I had to meet the right boy before I realised that non-monogamy was even an option. Turned out it was such a good option for me that we’re about to promise be non-monogamous together for the rest of our lives!

  elle wrote @

PS – orgies are completely fascinating. I totally freaked the first time I went to one, which surprised me cos I’ve always been really sexually confident, but once I got into the rhythm of them, I’ve found them great fun and not at all complicated.

For me and the Boy, the non-emotional, turn-up, have some fun, walk away, prolly never see the people again, is the simplest aspect of playing with others. You’re both there, so you can say immediately if you’re not comfortable with something, and you’re sharing the experience together.

I’ve only been to these parties: http://www.feverparties.com/ (NSFW obv) which are high-end compared with some of the seedier clubs.

  More on monogamy « Cheese sammiches and sex wrote @

[…] Relationships and tagged: experience, learning, poly, Sex Why don’t I vibe with monogamy? Here’s one answer. It’s mostly about jealousy and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: