Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What Monogamists Can Learn From Polyamorists

This article is the third in a four part series on polyamory and open and non-traditional relationships. The first article is about open and non-traditional relationships in general, the benefits, the dangers, and how to approach them. The second will discuss jealousy, envy and compersion and how to deal with the issues that opening a relationship could cause. The third discusses and defines various terms. This fourth article will talk about lessons that have been learned in the experience of the polyamorous community which can be applied to any relationship.

The good part of practicing the mainstream, monogamous concept of relationships is that most people you meet engage in the same kind of relationships that you do. You can go to your grandmother for dating advice and be relatively sure that she can at least relate with your situation.

On the other hand, when you think that there are centuries of knowledge behind what you are doing, you are less likely to think critically about your relationships and how you conduct them. This is where monogamous people can learn a great deal from those who practice polyamory.

The polyamorous community has had to blaze their own trail. Because there is no norm, it is accepted that every polyamorous situation is different and requires individual evaluation. With thousands of people practicing polyamory, many valuable lessons have been learned. Presented here are a few of those learnings which monogamists can learn from.

You Are Unique, Your Relationship Should Be Too
Even if you are monogamous, vanilla, and 'normal' as they come, you and your partner are unique people with unique expectations, unique needs, unique desires. In polyamory, it is understood that nothing can go unsaid in such a complex arrangement. In monogamy, people can get away with not discussing everything, but they do so at their own peril. Nothing actually "goes without saying."

Maybe one partner thinks that leaving dishes in the sink to wash them later is no big deal and the other thinks it is the height of slobbery. Neither partner is wrong here, but if they do not discuss it, both partners are wrong, and conflict is preordained. This applies to everything from the definition of cheating to issues around the house to sex to entertainment preferences and basic conversation.

Suzie says: I was dating this guy and I discovered all this porn on his computer. He was jerkin' it to cyber girls when he was with me. I was so pissed! Who does that? Why would he do that when he had a real life girl?

In Suzie's situation, her boyfriend did not think that porn was a problem. To his mind, it was just pictures. There was no connection. They were hardly real people to him, so how could it be infidelity? To her, all things sexual were in the domain of the relationship. By getting sexual gratification from the images on the screen, he was cheating on her. Neither one is wrong, which means that both partners need to talk about it and come to agreement on what they are both comfortable with.

When in doubt talk about it. Follow the first three rules of polyamory:
Rule #1. Communicate
Rule #2. Communicate
Rule #3. Communicate

All Emotions Are Valid, But Not All Responses Are Acceptable
In polyamory, jealousy is a common issue. It is natural and expected. People in polyamorous relationships have learned that they need to be able to speak openly about their emotional needs or else jealousy will quickly overwhelm the relationship.

In monogamy, jealousy is, hopefully, less of an issue, but there are other emotions which will come up which need to be acknowledged and faced in some way. Examples of such emotions are: dissatisfaction with some aspect of the relationship, attraction to another person, and frustration about some aspect of the other partner.

Some of the conventional wisdom will tell you to keep it to yourself. If this is a casual relationship that you do not care much about, follow this advice. If this is someone you care about and hope that you might spend the rest of your life with, it is terrible advice. For a strong relationship, you need to be able to talk openly and honestly with your partner about what you feel. You also need to be willing to listen, without judgement, to what your partner feels.

If you find that you are attracted to that guy at the gym, you want to be able to tell your partner. It's not that you would like to leave him for Mr. Muscles, but you are attracted. That's just how it is. You love your partner and would rather be with him than Mr. Muscles any day, but trying to repress that attraction causes stress and will only serve to make it worse, like picking a scab. If you can get it out in the open, you can move past it.

Not Everyone Defines Cheating the Same Way
In polyamory, one is generally allowed to be involved with other partners, but there are still rules. Perhaps a partner needs to be approved by the present partner. Perhaps one can have sex with a partner but must use a latex barrier. One should never assume that they know what their partner is comfortable with until they have discussed it.

Dan says: I dated a woman who was not comfortable with me having outside relationships. However, as we talked about it, it turned out that her main concern was safety regarding STDs. I didn't really feel a great need to have sex with other women, but I enjoy the thrill of going out to a club and meeting and fooling around with new people from time to time. We agreed that I could make out with girls at the club. I got what I wanted, and she was perfectly comfortable with the arrangement herself.

In monogamy, one is not allowed to have sex with another person. That is generally understood, but where is the line where it becomes inappropriate? Some people are monogamous, but, like in Dan's story, go to night clubs and make out with some pretty people before returning home to their monogamous relationship. They have agreed to it, so it is okay. Some people think flirting and cybersex online is cheating. Others think it is harmless fun. Some people even think that lusting in your heart is cheating. Wherever the line is in a relationship is valid as long a it is established by mutual agreement, not some vague understanding of what "everyone knows".

There is no wrong answer, but the only right answer is the one that both partners agree on. Some people get it into their heads that there is a proper way to have a relationship. This is hogwash. Your relationship is your own. Discuss with your partner what you are and are not comfortable with before it comes up, and you will both be happy.

You may see a theme here. It starts with 'C' and rhymes with 'Flumunication'. If you learn only one thing from Smart Love, learn this: nothing goes without saying, everything is worth talking about openly, honestly, and with love.


  1. Hi Michael,

    It seems as if there are some rather broad generalizations made here about monogamous people. Why do you assume that monogamous people do not communicate with one another? Communication is central to good, long-lasting relationships of any kind, monogamous or not.

    Over the years, I've seen some massively screwed up poly relationships--from guys who have "secondary" relationships until the "primary" gets upset, then the secondary is summarily dismissed. Or when an unstable "secondary"--usually female--is moved in without the consent of the primary. Or when the polyamory is one-sided, as in it's o.k. for the guy to be poly but the woman "chooses" not to be--yet she, too, defines herself as poly. From my vantage point, poly people have as many troubled relationships as monogamous people, and with a shorter cultural track record.

    It seems to me--someone who chooses to keep her relationship lifestyle a private thing--that the way poloyamory is often discussed is really a kind of relationship posturing. As if the people engaging in it have a need to justify what they do privately to others around them. Is it really so important to define oneself one way or another? Is an us/them attitude about relationships constructive to any group? I always feel that what I do and how I choose to live is a matter between myself and who I'm involved with. IMO, defining my relationship status with this or that lifestyle limits the type and kinds of relationships I have in my life. Thus, it makes more sense not to be allied with this or that "lifestyle." All "lifestyles" have limitations. Love, and true honest relationships, don't.

  2. Thank you for your comments. You have some excellent points here. The purpose of this article is to point out to monogamous people, people who might not even be familiar with polyamory at all, that there are concepts that they might learn from the hard-won lessons of polyamory. Neither poly nor mono has any monopoly on good relationships or good communication. There are plenty of good monogamous communicators and plenty of terrible polyamorous relationships.