The One and the Many
View from the railroad bridge in Rosendale, New York, 2007. Photo by Eric Francis.
Planet Waves by Eric Francis
The other day, an email came floating into my inbox from a website called Care2, a green-styled corporate site purportedly dedicated to saving the world, claiming 12.5 million subscribers. The subject header of the email read, "Monogamy vs. Polyamory: Do Open Relationships Work?"
Naturally, I thought: this ought to be interesting.
The writer titled her analysis like a boxing match or a legal case. Mono versus Poly is now in session! All Rise! The article commenced as such (literally, its first words): "Non-monogamy is about one thing -- sex. And sex is good."
(You can tell she learned her writing style from The Bible.)
It went downhill from there, fast. Faster than I thought possible without jet propulsion and a lot of lube. "And sex with different people -- either concurrently or over the course of a lifetime -- is good too. Sex is so good that some people are addicted to it. Sex makes people do crazy things and it makes people feel amazing things. I love it just as much as anyone else, but there is more to life than sex."
When you see the word 'but' you can usually tell how things are going to go. Her premise is that since polyamory is about sex, and since sex isn't everything, polyamory is nothing special to concern oneself with. The author, whose name is Polly, continues: "I am pretty sure that the words on your deathbed won't be, 'I wish I had had more sex with more people'. Maybe if you're a pervert, or if you didn’t get much action in your life, you would say that, but most people wouldn't."
I will spare you any more. This article, while one of the less eloquent and less favorable recent mainstream reviews of polyamory, shares one thing in common with every other article on the topic that I've ever seen in the mainstream media: it sets polyamory and monogamy against one another as irreconcilable opposites.
While the author is less tactful about her prejudices, she does us the favor of expressing them overtly: for example, there is in many discussions the lurking suspicion that people who don't claim orthodox monogamy are perverts, but the word is rarely used. Or they don't really like relationships, and can't handle intimacy; they just want to get laid. Facing these prejudices repeatedly is enough to push nearly anyone who tries to be openly polyamorous back into the closet.
Yet I wonder what the real issue is. Studies done over the years on the incidence of cheating reveal that 45% to 65% of women and 55% to 80% of men stray outside monogamous commitments. The variance is because some studies ask whether people have ever cheated while in a monogamous agreement; some ask whether they have cheated in their current relationship. Other studies show that women tend to understate their sexual conquests, and men tend to exaggerate.
In any event, we're talking about a large portion of the population whose definition of monogamy has at one time included, and possibly includes today, sex with more than one person. For a fast check, ask yourself: do you know anyone who hasn't been through this at least once? How about three times? How abut five?
Notably, the accepted definition of monogamy has changed in recent decades from one partner for life (now considered archaic), to one partner at a time, as often as you feel like moving on. That's a big difference. The revised term is 'serial monogamy', but I prefer to think of it as serial polyamory: we tend to have multiple partners, one at a time (that is, while we're not having multiple partners, several at a time).
By any realistic description, monogamy is sounding a lot like polyamory. Those who are proponents of monogamy at all costs, who advance the cause of abstinence only until heterosexual marriage for life, sound like they are in reaction to the observable data, which basically proves that most people are simply not that way; that, and in reaction to their own feelings. True, there are some who choose a mate for life. For some this actually works and for some it creates misery. In any event, we only know their story up until today. We don't know about tomorrow.
No matter how we experience relationships, I would propose that there are more similarities between what we call monogamy and what we call polyamory. For one thing, they both involve modes of relationship. No matter what the outward style, relationships boil down to a one-to-one meeting between two individuals. Those meetings are set within a larger community context with many complex interrelations: a community. That community either supports the relationship or it weakens the relationship. The relationship either offers something back to society, or it does not. Who has sex with whom seems to be incidental -- except for one thing, jealousy. I won't say much about jealousy in this article, except I would state up front that if one issue is choking off the potential of the human race, that's the one.
From Self to Self: The Inner Origin of Relationships
But let's go back to the back to the egg. One must be a self to have a relationship with someone else. Being a self implies an inner awareness of existence, which is a relationship to existence that is in truth a relationship to self. The quality of this core relationship determines nearly everything that follows. No matter what kind of external relationships you engage in, your primary relationship is to you.
How do you feel about your existence? Do you love yourself, judge yourself, hate yourself, struggle to 'be yourself'? What threatens you and what makes you happy? To what extent to you take ownership of your life? What threatens or enhances your sense of existence? How do you relate to death?
And, a kind of operative question that results from all of these: why do you want to be in relationship to other people? What is your motive? Is it to share pleasure, learning, and food? Is it to share work and a mission? Is it to share misery? Is the purpose to seek completion in another, or to explore your wholeness with another? Is the purpose to protect you from something or to celebrate and explore a sense of safety? Do you seek love or attachment?
These themes appear to be mediated by one's relationship to oneself. Each individual brings an agenda into the pairing, and that agenda is internally mediated. In other words, you decide and express your agenda based on your relationship to yourself. Notably, this is the relationship that we seem to lose sight of when we're 'in a relationship', which might feel like losing one's independence or sense of identity.
And I would add, this inner relationship is the real thing that most of us struggle with, most of the time we're struggling. Even if we think we're struggling in a relationship, what we're actually struggling with is a relationship with ourselves. If we could figure that out, we would have fewer problems and more solutions. We would know where to look for those solutions.
From One Self to Another Self: Dyad as the Basic Bond
One subject that rarely arises at polyamory conferences (the places polyamorous people come to talk about relationships) is monogamy. I mean, it's mentioned, but the topic of the depth of one-on-one bonds is secondary to the issue of how things are doing with the other partners; the rules of engagement with other partners; and so on. Rare is it that to hear open conversation about the need to relate one-on-one or the need to be in an exclusive relationship for a while.
I think that most people who identify as polyamorous know this and honor this, but individual relationships seems to play second fiddle in poly culture when in fact, so far as I can tell, it's the second most basic foundation of poly culture. The very most basic is where one stands with oneself.
Now 'monogamy' and 'polyamory' have a second key element in common: they are both use dyadic (that is, pair) bonding as a structural basis. Strong dyads share the same basic properties: they are based on agreements; they are based on honesty; they are based on a desire to share; hopefully they are based on love.
Relationships have a purpose, and they express that purpose within a tribe or community. Remember that marriage, our society's most basic and seemingly most coveted bond, is often performed in a pubic ceremony, officiated by a public official (traditionally by a minister, a judge, the mayor or a sea captain).
The relationship is presumed to have public implications and the marriage license is a public document, filed with the city clerk. This suggests that the pair bond is part of something larger: society or a community and often, a family.
Relationships involve a contract or agreement of some kind, even if that is just to be together. Whether they are happy affairs or not usually involves whether the individuals involved feel that the agreement is honored; whether the individuals get their needs met; and whether the arrangement works for both people. These facts apply whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual, whether the individuals are members of the same race or economic class, or whether they are of the similar or very different ages. Most of us would agree to that: "whatever makes them happy." Whatever makes us happy, if we can arrange it. Whether the individuals involved choose to have sex with other people would be covered by all of these concepts.
The Many: We All Have Multiple Relationships
One thing does not change, whatever kind of relationship is involved: those individuals relate to other people. Unless they are really, really lonely, they love other people and other people love them.
Referring back to the beginning of Polly's article (polyamory is all about sex), the truth is our relationships are always about so much more. It verges on hilarious that someone would accuse polyamorous people in particular of focusing on sex; poly folk spend so much of their time obsessively involved with the details of their relationships, it's amazing they have time for sex. But even the 'let's meet at the motel for a quickie' kind of affairs have a way of becoming more than just sex.
Yet even if we presume sexual monogamy -- someone who only has physical sex with one other person, for a long time -- we all have bonds and commitments with others. Some of those, while nonsexual, can be profound, intimate and long-lasting connections. Imagine a man is married, in a healthy relationship with his wife. He also has a secretary who has worked for him for 20 years, and they love and trust one another deeply. They haven't shared sex, but their bond of love is as powerful as that of any marriage. Most people would not call that polyamory; I would.
One thing I've always found interesting is that monogamy has many rules that don't involve sex. Some monogamous couples do not 'allow' one another to have close friends of the opposite sex. Some monogamous people feel threatened when their partner has any friends at all. Some don't 'allow' their partner to go to community college. Some feel threatened when their partner checks out a cute guy or girl, and some encourage one another to be open about their attractions and even their erotic fantasies, unfettered. Others would be profoundly threatened by this. Still others invite their friends to have sex with them.
Since nearly everyone has sexual desires and fantasies about others, the core issue running the show would seem to be jealousy. Jealous people are going to relate to others with a different set of presumptions and expectations than those who either don't experience jealousy, or who process it in a healthy way. As it turns out, in an attempt to avoid the jealousy issue, a great many have sex with others without telling their partner about it.
When we talk about polyamory, what we're really describing is an agreement to take up all the boundaries of a relationship consciously, rather than applying a term that seems to presume the nature of those boundaries, but more often denies their existence. Why ever would we do that? Well, since your first relationship is to yourself: ask yourself.