In conversations with people over the years, I have been asked, in a myriad of ways, if I think that polyamory is better than monoamory. Do I think that being polyamorous is better (necessarily or generally) than monoamory?
I’ve dealt with the question before, but I want to take a different approach–a different perspective–on the question today. I don’t think that polyamory, per se, is better. I do think many of the skills and lessons that being polyamorous has taught me are superior, but those same lessons could, potentially, be learned while being monoamorous. What I have come to see as superior is not the ends–not how many romantic, sexual, etc partners one has–but the process of how we get to those ends.
Process over teleology, in short. Let me explain.
I’ve talked a fair bit about my annoyance that being with one person, even if that monoamory is not the short-term goal, is the mainstream default ultimate goal. While young and dating, many people will date two or more people within the same time-frame, but the ultimate goal in our culture is to find one person to either settle with or to convince yourself that this one person is all that you need romantically and sexually. And sometimes it ends up being true, whether for several years or a lifetime, but this model of relationships is not universally ideal.
The problem here is that this approach to relationships is teleological, which means it’s concerned with the ends, rather than the means or the process. It views the purpose of relationships as being concerned with a set goal (or set of goals) which all current relationships should aspire to. We should be tying to find a single life-partner, because that’s what real love is or something. If you are not interested in that, then you might not find happiness, or you may even be doing something wrong.
Let’s take a couple of basic examples; Let’s say that you have been with someone for 5 years and are not married yet, and not considering marriage. For many people you are doing something wrong, the relationship is a dead end, and you may need to find someone else you are ready to be serious with. Marriage, monogamy really, is the goal for many people, and if that ring doesn’t present itself, then move on (that’s the wisdom, anyway). Or maybe you don’t have a single partner for very long, whether serially monogamous or you keep dating more than one person simultaneously. In this case, the common wisdom says that you might have commitment issues (which may be true), because if you were ready to commit you would stop playing the field and finally become an adult, or something. In short, if you are not in a monogamous marriage, in a relationship moving towards monogamy, or even looking for that, then you are doing it wrong.
The problem here is not that finding one person to spend your life with is bad per se. The issue is not about where you end up, the issue is how you were thinking about your desires, emotional and physical needs, and whether you were getting what you actually want from relationships rather than thinking about a default and expected end.
If you have read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, you will see this default set of relationship expectations turned on it’s head. Here’s a snippet from chapter 3:
Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters. But there were also husbands, wives, lovers. There were also monogamy and romance.
“Though you probably don’t know what those are,” said Mustapha Mond.
They shook their heads.
Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, a narrow channelling of impulse and energy.
“But every one belongs to every one else,” he concluded, citing the hypnopædic proverb.
The students nodded, emphatically agreeing with a statement which upwards of sixty-two thousand repetitions in the dark had made them accept, not merely as true, but as axiomatic, self-evident, utterly indisputable.
“But after all,” Lenina was protesting, “it’s only about four months now since I’ve been having Henry.”
“Only four months! I like that. And what’s more,” Fanny went on, pointing an accusing finger, “there’s been nobody else except Henry all that time. Has there?”
Lenina blushed scarlet; but her eyes, the tone of her voice remained defiant. “No, there hasn’t been any one else,” she answered almost truculently. “And I jolly well don’t see why there should have been.”
“Oh, she jolly well doesn’t see why there should have been,” Fanny repeated, as though to an invisible listener behind Lenina’s left shoulder. Then, with a sudden change of tone, “But seriously,” she said, “I really do think you ought to be careful. It’s such horribly bad form to go on and on like this with one man. At forty, or thirty-five, it wouldn’t be so bad. But at your age, Lenina! No, it really won’t do. And you know how strongly the D.H.C. objects to anything intense or long-drawn. Four months of Henry Foster, without having another man–why, he’d be furious if he knew …”
Some may think that this is the polyamorous ideal (and for some it may be), but this, as a societal norm, is equally problematic because it discounts the possibility that some people, few or many as they are, may not want more than one person (or anyone at all, for that matter). This commits the same error as our current culture as being more concerned with the goal than how one gets to where we get.
What do you want?
I mean, what do you desire?
This may not be as easy a question as you think it is. The reason is that many of our wants are a result of the acculturation we receive as we grow up. We are guided towards the social and cultural ideals of the world we live in, if not out-right trained or programmed (in some extreme cases), which informs the kinds of answers that come to mind when asked what we want. When I ask you what you want, here, I’m not asking you what your long term goals are, what you hope to achieve, and especially not what you think you should want. No, in this case I’m asking what you desire, generally and right now, from people around you.
What types of interactions do you desire with people?
What we actually desire may conflict with the cultural norms around us, and when those things conflict we may find that we automatically, or possibly feel compelled to, lean towards the norm rather than the desire (and for many the opposite is true as well, but that’s an error I’ll not address right now). People who find themselves attracted to their own gender may pretend otherwise, especially if they are bisexual, due to religious or cultural expectations which devalue homosexuality and bisexuality (especially for men).
If you find yourself desiring two or more people, in our culture the appropriate thing to do is to spend time with all of them, in order to determine which one you will pick, or to simply decide which to pursue so as to avoid conflicts or jealousy. But this is absurd from a point of view where one is agnostic concerning where one ends up.
If you are not very concerned about what is expected of you from your culture, and you rather follow what you actually desire, then there is no reason to openly, un-apologetically, and unabashedly pursue all of the people whom interest you. And you should then stay with the people with whom you share some mutually-pleasurable relationship, whether it be purely physical, purely romantic, purely friendly, or any combination thereof. You should not be concerned about what expectations there are whether from your culture, society, religion, or family. You should pursue what you want with concern only for the people with whom you have relationships.
In short, love each person as you actually love them, no more and no less.
And wherever that takes you, whether monoamoryy, polyamory, or some other non-monoamorous option, that’s fine. If you end up being with one person for the rest of your life, then fine (that’s what I call “Accidental monoamory/ monogamy“) and if you end up being with 25 people (to varying degrees or not), that’s fine too. The point is not to be perpetually strategizing what type of lifestyle you will have, but to simply allow your relationships to go where they naturally lead according to the desires that everyone involved has.
Of course, you should be transparent about this; you should not claim to be exclusive while not being exclusive, for example. You need to pursue your desires with care and consideration for the people with whom you have relationships.
To sum up, polyamory is not better per se, although I think that what people can learn from polyamory might raise our cultural consciousness about the nature of desire and relationship possibilities which most people don’t consider. I don’t necessarily want everyone to be polyamorous, but I think everyone should be aware that monoamory is not the only healthy option. If we allow our actual desires to fuel our pursuit of love and sex, I think many more people will find options more like polyamory, rather than automatically and unthinkingly choose monoamory out of cultural habit.