I had a conversation with a long-time acquaintance (and one-time friend) a couple of years ago about, well, a lot of things but which included polyamory. This is a person who claimed, credibly, to have had experience with things such as group sex, alternative sexual communities, etc. Nonetheless she had grown out of all of that, and she seemed to view my active polyamorous lifestyle as a sort of atavism towards our younger days when we were young and experimenting with ourselves.
She also seemed to have somehow concluded that my view of monogamy was to view it as prudish and ridiculous. Now, under some circumstances I might be willing to make such a declaration, but certainly not in general. I think that the assumption of monogamy is often problematic and I would like more people to understand the skills which I have learned from being polyamorous, but I do not think there is anything inherently bad, immature, nor reprehensible about deciding to be monogamous.
But one thing she said has stuck with me since that conversation. It was right after she said that she had experiences with non-monogamous activities that she said that she was with a man (her husband) who made her happy. She emphasized the fact that he had qualities which she appreciated, both physically and otherwise, which sufficiently satisfied her. And while I don’t remember the exact words, she implied that my desiring, or perhaps even requiring, multiple relationships was immature. She said that if I ever had a real woman (like herself, whom she considered out of my league) that I would not be able to handle her and I only chose this lifestyle because I was with inferior, insecure, women.
The basis for this claim was to indicate some recent women I had dated. One recent long term relationship, a girl I still talk to occasionally but with whom I have no continuing relationship , she referred to as a “fool.” The woman with who I had been living, but who had recently broke up with me, was referred to as highly insecure (hence my ability to talk her into polyamory), and the girl I was with at the time and with whom I had recently moved to Atlanta (yeah, her…) just seemed to my acquaintance to be similar to the last; insecure, uninteresting, being manipulated and possibly victimized by an insecure and predatory man.
Let’s just say this acquaintance of mine does not think highly of me, at least anymore.
To her, at least at that time, this polyamory thing was for insecure or at least immature people who are trying to overcompensate for something lacking. Real adults (“real” men and women) don’t do silly things like that It’s an old charge, and an amusing one for me.
But what stuck out to me was her repeated insistence that she was happy with her relationship as it existed. She saw no reason to add to it in any way, and I was missing something in not being with a “real woman” in a “real” relationship. I have no doubt that her claim to happiness was (and probably still is) sincere and probably true. I know her husband (I’ve known them both since high school), and he is a person I like. But something about her comment has stuck with me, and today I want to talk about why.
Conflating structure with quality
Here is what I think my old acquaintance, as well as many others I have talked to since who have made similar arguments, are missing. If you are happy, is your happiness dependent upon the structure or the quality of your relationship?
By the “structure” of your relationship I mean the negotiated rules and boundaries. Are you permitted to pursue other relationships? What are the limitations on those relationships? Are you married, just dating, and will you be co-habitating? Things like that.
By the “quality” of the relationship, I mean the level of communication, shared goals and activities, and other related considerations. Are you honest both with yourself and your partners? Do you try and communicate and address issues as they arise? Do you make an effort to maintain your relationship and not merely coast? Things like that.
In terms of the health of your relationship, it is not really relevant what the structure of your relationship is. Whatever rules and boundaries you agree to (non-coerced, obviously), you can be happy so long as you are doing the necessary work involved. The quality of your relationship seems to be a measure of your happiness itself. In other words, the level of communications and so forth are tool you use to make and maintain a healthy relationship. If you don’t communicate well, don’t share goals, and you don’t like each other then being happy in that relationship seems impossible.
So, what does it matter whether this acquaintance of mine was/is happy being monogamous? What does that have to do with my being polyamorous? Why address the structure of my relationship rather than the quality? Well, perhaps she knew little to nothing about the quality of my relationships (this seemed true). And in fact the quality of those relationships at the time were not ideal, but they were good. But she didn’t know that, and she showed no interest in addressing that in any case. For her, it was sufficient to say that she was monogamous, was happy, and so I was just overcompensating for something by doing what I was doing.
Happiness has nothing necessarily to do with structure of your relationship.
If you are honest with your partner(s), if you make an effort to communicate effectively, and you share goals, interests, and quality time with them, then you have a much better chance at being happy with them. Once you decide to do the necessary work to improve whatever relationships you have, you have the ability to make them healthier and more satisfying. And this can be done whether you decide to be monogamous, to swap partners, to go to swing clubs, to have casual sex outside the relationship, or start your own polyamorous commune where everyone belongs to everyone equally.
What matters in terms of being happy is being honest with what you want, communicating that to the people you care about, and doing the work it takes to maintain a healthy relationship based upon those considerations. Anyone can do this, whether they are monogamous like my acquaintance or polyamorous like me. I think this is something that our culture in general needs to better understand.
What I am saddened by is that my friendship with this person has not continued, in part because of this conversations. But largely it was the events around that time, much of it due to my own misdeeds, led to her distancing herself from me. And since then I have done considerable work to improve myself, and I believe that all of her criticisms of me at that time are no longer relevant. Nonetheless, now all that remains between us is the inauthentic polite chit-chat at our occasional meetings at a party, which has been thankfully rare. I think if she knew me now, as well as the quality of my relationships, she could see the two amazing women of high quality (“real womenTM“) I have built relationships with.
But she’s stubborn, and so it will likely not come to be. But I’m happy, and if she is happy then I suppose I can live with lost friends. What bothers me is being judged for what I’m not, by a person who seems to have no interest in knowing who I am. If I’m going to be judged, I want to be judged for what I am.