Dear Prudence; yet another advice columnist ignorant about polyamory

Through a polyamory contact on facebook, I found this letter to “Dear Prudence,” a advice column at, this morning:

Dear Prudence,
I’m a 27-year-old woman who recently made friends with a nice, attractive 34-year-old man. He asked me out for drinks soon thereafter and made it clear that he’s interested in a romantic relationship. He’s my type, and I like him, but after our date he explained that he’s in an open marriage. I have no doubt that it’s a mutual agreement between him and his wife. And I’m in a situation that makes the idea especially appealing: I just got out of a two-year relationship that was sexually unsatisfying (my boyfriend rarely climaxed). It left me feeling as if there’s something wrong with me. The idea of a fling with someone new, with no commitment potential and nothing to lose, seems like it could be a positive ego boost for me as I look for single, available men to date. New guy is saying: Let me be your rebound! Let’s be friends with benefits! But most of my friends think it’s a morally objectionable thing to do and doubt that I can get involved without getting my feelings hurt in the long run. What do you think?

—Want a Fling

This letter concerns an issue that more and more people are going to be thinking about as non-monogamy starts to spread throughout our culture more relevantly.  And yet a relatively well-known advice columnist drops the ball on it, as I have seen many of them do in recent years.  I think we need a newer set of advice columnists in the world.

Now, before we start let me say that not all of the advice  is terrible, but what it demonstrates is a couple of things: For one, Yoffe is obviously unfamiliar with polyamory.  She may know the word, but she certainly has not bothered to educate herself about any form of responsible non-monogamy.  Another thing is that her views on relationships are, well, old hat.  Let’s look at her response in parts, and I will respond to them in terms of what I was thinking as I read the piece.

She starts:

I wish you’d explained why you are so certain that this guy’s wife is also party to the information that they have an “open marriage.”

This is actually a fair point, but the way it’s made makes me wonder a little whether “Prudie” may addressing the problem too strongly and in the wrong way.  Yes, it is important, when approaching polyamory, an open relationship, etc, that you have some way to be relatively sure that knowledge and consent exists from other people involved with your person of interest.  But in this case I’m willing to take the letter-writer’s certainty for granted, and hoped that Prudie would answer the question as if it were true.  It seems to me that the real issue here is how “Want a Fling” could  deal with an actual open relationship and not how to spot false ones.  Perhaps I’m being over-sensitive about that.

But hen, she goes on:

I’m assuming that he didn’t text a photo of you to his wife in the middle of your date with the note, “Things are going well!” I bet if you decided to have an affair with him, it would quickly become clear your relationship is surreptitious and you would have to go along with his rules.

Why are you assuming that? Has Prudie never actually met real people with open relationships? Does she assume this is code for “I’m cheating” or “my wife/husband will not really care…so long as nobody tells her/him” in most (or all) cases?  This is a kind of poisoning the well before we can even address how to think about dealing with a potential relationship with a married, but open, person.  Rather than address the real issue here, Prudie is tipping her hand and revealing that she is probably not in favor of open relationships.

Don’t worry, it gets better worse:

It doesn’t speak well for this this man’s character (no matter what arrangement he and his wife have) that he withheld the central fact of his being married until after the seductive banter and drinks.

So, this is a great example of monogamous privilege at work.  Prudie has obvious not thought this through.  There may be reasons that this man wanted to keep his open relationship hidden at first. They may have to do with his job, his family, etc and so he only tells people to whom this information is pertinent; like someone he’d like to date, have sex with, etc.  Perhaps he just wanted to spend some time with her to find out if that’s what he really wanted before telling her.

I have been in similar situations before, and done the same thing (although now I divulge this as early as possible to people I’m into, being that I’m completely out of the closet.  Not all people have the privilege of doing so).   I believe that one should always reveal the nature of their relationship status to potential partners early, certainly before any sexual relationship develops, but not always immediately.  During or after the first date is a pretty good time to let your interest know, I think, so I disagree with Prudie here pretty strongly.

It continues:

However, I understand the appeal of a commitment-free sex romp after coming out of a sexually frustrating relationship. But before you give him the benefit of the doubt regarding his friends-with-benefits proposal, make two counterproposals of your own. One is that you two get to know each other better first. I’m guessing he won’t want to invest too much time in activities unrelated to said benefits. Another is that given his history, you need to get a current STD status on him. Again, I assume he’s not going to be interested in generating any paperwork in order to get in the sack with you.

OK, so there is a lot here, so let’s break it down.

Want a Fling has made it pretty clear that she is at least fine with the idea of no commitment fun, and yet Prudie advises a counter-proposal that would imply taking it slow and safely to scare the (probably cheating and lying, amirite?) man away.  The problem with this is that the man has said (according to the letter-writer; the only source of information we have here) that he’s interested in a romantic relationship.  But rather than pick up on this, Prudie thinks that slowing it down and asking for proof of STD cleanliness (which any responsible non-monogamous person would be fine with demonstrating) will expose the lies, rather than potentially turn Want a Fling’s interest in some fun into a situation where it might actually become a potential relationship.  You know, like polyamory.

If the man is actually in an open relationship and is actually interested in a romantic relationship, then this advice will sound fine to him.  I know if I were this man and the woman came back with that counter-proposal, I’d be fine with it.  Now, if that’s Prudie’s intent (to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were) then fine, but why all the cynical and distrustful language in the response? Why the negativity towards this being a real thing? Why the negativity towards non-monogamy?

Let’s continue:

But even if he demonstrates he’s disease free, consider that aside from the moral questions about a married man, investing your time in one does have a cost. You think you can be looking for that real partner while you are carrying on with this guy. But, as your friends have warned, you can’t anticipate what happens to your emotions once you get involved with someone.

And this revels the problem; Prudie seems to have a view that having a relationship with a married person is immoral in general.  It does not seem to matter whether the relationship is open or not, because even if the wife agrees there is something inherently wrong about this situation.  Because if Want a Fling actually starts to like this married man (and what if he starts to really like here? I don’t know what this particular man means by “open”) then that’s bad,  right?

Well, not necessarily.  I know many polyamorous people who use the term “open” to describe their relationship status.  I don’t know if this man, or his wife, would be OK with more than just sexy fun (they should be, IMHO), so I cannot say any more about that.  But Prudie demonstrates here that she is really unfamiliar with this dynamic which many people live with all the time, and this is problematic for an advice columnist. All she can do is warn of false openness or the fact that she might start to like him.  The horror.

But, to cap it all off:

If this affair gets hot and heavy, it will likely make the available men seem lukewarm and lightweight in comparison. Keep at the forefront of your mind that your goal is to find your own life partner, not borrow someone else’s.

Holy fucking shit she did not just say that! I mean, she did, but holy fuckballs how is this person an advice columnist? Should such people have some actual perspective on things before they are allowed to get paid for this shit?

Anyway, this is terrible.  One, this man is available.  He’s in an open relationship.  His wife does not own him.  He does not belong to her.  Want a Fling is not borrowing property the way she would go to a neighbor to borrow their weed-wacker or someshit.  She is considering having a relationship with another person, who also happens to have a relationship with other people.  Just like we all do (but with sex, which is apparently the way we own people).

And how would this relationship becoming hot and heavy effect other potential partners? The man is obviously non-monogamous, so Want a Fling could be so as well, if she wanted.  She could have a few lovers to help her gain some confidence in her sexuality again, if she wanted.  Perhaps she could even have relationships with, and care about, all of them.

And who said anything about Want a Fling’s goals? Why should her goal be to find a life partner? Perhaps she doesn’t want that at all.  Perhaps she just wants to have flings with men who are in open relationships.  Perhaps she does not know exactly what she wants, but she just wants to try some thing out to learn more (something that, perhaps, Emily Yoffe could have done more of).

Bottom line: Some people should not be giving advice.  I don’t know much about Emily Yoffe, but I think she needs to gain some more life experience and perspective about relationships before she starts giving more advice.  We need more poly-friendly advice-givers.

Hey Slate, hire me.


Accidental monogamy: surviving the fires of polyamory

People don’t tend to have one small set of coherent and well-understood wants and needs, easily compatible with one other person who also has their wants and needs categorized into an easily communicative format for ideal matching algorithms (not even OK Cupid’s!).  No; our needs are largely unknown, fluid, and evolving and in order to satisfy them we will usually need to have multiple outlets for them which are capable of handling the inevitable evolution of those desires.

For some, a monogamous arrangement may sufficiently satisfy both people involved.  But how can we be sure that this arrangement really does satisfy the needs of both people and is not merely a capitulation to pragmatism and lack of personal challenge?

Let’s start with a basic distinction.

What is the difference between:

    • a couple who have seriously considered and challenged what they want and subsequently arrived, accidentally, at a monogamous relationships structure which fits with what both ideally want and need.
    • a couple who have ignored, compromised, or otherwise rationalized their wants and needs to fit their relationship into the expected relationship structure in our culture due to concerns about jealousies, insecurities, and fear of social stigma?

Answer: one has survived the fires of polyamory and accidentally landed in monogamy, and the other has chosen monogamy without traversing said fires.

That is, the former didn’t create a rule of romantic or sexual exclusivity nor had they assumed monogamy via cultural defaults.  They are accidentally monogamous in that they simply have no desire to be with other people even if pursuing such a thing is permitted.  The latter type of couple cannot be sure if they are maximally satisfied with their relationship because they have not taken the issue seriously enough.  They may, in fact, be missing something potentially wonderful for the sake of pragmatism or insecurity.

In order to be sure that the monogamous arrangement is actually satisfying the wants and needs of both individuals (hence not needing to even create an exclusivity rule because neither partner is interested in straying) one has to address the issue of polyamory.

All too often, the idea of sacrifice, compromise, and repression of certain desires is chosen in place of satisfaction (or at last the attempt of such) of what we want to have.  Many people convince themselves that a relationship with one person is not only a better path to take, but it is more intimate and meaningful one.

That is, quite frankly, not only a myth but it is absurd and irrational.  We need to allow ourselves to explore who we are, if we care to find out, by traveling the paths that will allow us to do so best.  We cannot limit ourselves, based upon social expectations, to learning slowly and inefficiently lessons which will, be invaluable to us.

Calculating the probabilities

Monogamy is logically possible as a means to satisfying all the the wants and needs of two people.  In such cases where this is the case, I applaud the work that was needed and done in order to ensure that certainty, because such certainty cannot be achieved merely through assumption, cultural default relationship progression, or lack of honest communication about needs, goals, etc.

But something being logically possible does not tell us how likely it is.  So, how likely is it that two people would be ideally happy with only one romantic/sexual partner?

The specific sets of desires, personalities, and capabilities which would need to exist in two people will be highly unlikely to ideally math up.  This, compounded by the necessity that each person will have done the essential personal work to know what they need and want from themselves and others makes the matching up, in time, space, and single-ness, highly unlikely.  Also, they need to actually meet.

How I might actually calculate such probabilities, whether with some Bayesian analysis or by some other means, is beyond my ability to do.  First of all, I am not an expert in probability or statistics.  Secondly, I don’t know all the relevant factors or how to weigh them against each-other.  Thirdly, I don’t think that actual probabilities is necessary to make the general point; it seems highly unlikely.

And yet, monogamy is rampant.  My conclusion is that the vast majority of monogamous relationships are not ideally healthy, at least from the point of view of them not satisfying all the wants and needs of the people involved.  Perhaps not everyone shares the value of satisfying our wants and needs above social pragmatism, or something, but either way I think that the world has something to gain by addressing the issue of non-monogamy as a means of making our relationships better.

By putting ourselves through the difficult challenges of figuring out what we want, what others want, and allowing ourselves to find monogamy by accident rather than default, I think much can be learned and our relationships will be better, whether monogamous or polyamorous, for everyone.

When did you choose to be monogamous?

I have been asked by a number of people over the years why I am polyamorous.  It can be in the form of when I chose to be polyamorous, how long I have actively become polyamorous, how does that work given jealousy, and so forth.  But I think that such questions might be misisng the larger question.

When do people choose to be monogamous?

Have most monogamous couples had a discussion about exclusivity when they reached a certain point in their relationship? I highly doubt that many couples have had the mono/poly discussion at all, actually.  I would love to hear anecdotes to the contrary, as real statistical data is likely to be severely lacking.

Even those couples who might dabble in swinging, swapping with other couples, or even eventually became polyamorous probably never had such a conversation. Most people are ignorant, rather than intimated or uninterested in non-monogamy, especially polyamory

But in a strict sense monogamous people are choosing to live that lifestyle, even if it is an uninformed choice.  The authenticity of the choice is not overwhelming because in most cases alternative options are not realistically considered even if they are understood to be actual options. It’s hard to make an informed decision when you know almost nothing about it; even most of my friends and family know next to nothing about how polyamory works.

The fact is that monogamy is the cultural default, and is rarely realistically questioned.  This is why the polyamorous community is so small, the swinger community is often anonymous and often secretive, and even affairs are kept quiet; they are a blemish on the fantastical ideal of monogamy.

Having been monogamous in my life, I have a perspective where my choice to try and maintain a polyamorous lifestyle is informed.  And for the few monogamous people who are well aware of polyamory and have discussed the issue with their partner, their choice is authentic and informed as well as mine is, but they are rare.

The vast majority of our culture seems to be monogamous by default, rather than by authentic choice.  Until the idea gains more mainstream attention and understanding starts to spread (if this ever happens), this ignorance shall be the norm.

Don’t say “polyamory”

So, yesterday I went to New York to do some upstart talk show by a former Catholic (and present Episcopalian) priest called Father Albert.  While we were prepping to go into the studio, the production staff, after asking many questions, interviewing us, and making a video introduction for the show, coached us to not use the word “polyamory” while on camera or in studio.  They wanted us to use the more commonly accepted term of “open relationship.”

Now, I understand their reasons.  For one, they had a guest who was formerly the 6th wife of a FLDS polygamist (who ended up having 10 wives), and people don’t understand (nor would they likely hear) a difference between the words polyamory and polygamy.  If we are being strictly technical, polygamy can be a sub-set of polyamory, except in most polygamist situations their is little to no love going around.  To distinguish between what Ginny and I are doing and what that women experienced in the environment of a talk show would be a herculean task.  The more general reason is that the term simply is not known widely enough to not be distracting from talking about what are relationship is like.

This is somewhat frustrating from the point of view of someone who is trying to educate people about responsible non-monogamy.  I agreed to not use the term because I realized that my time on the show would be short, and that I would likely be facing some hostility to the nature of my relationship with Ginny from an audience that is more likely to be conservative in their views about sex and relationships.  And that turned out to be a safe assumption, as they were pretty unfriendly to us in general.  I was glad to see one woman stand up and support us, even if she was likely the minority opinion there.

Father Albert himself, the host, was not supportive of us either.  He just didn’t get it, he said.  He talked about counseling couples towards a strong monogamous marriage, and that adding people to our relationship is only dangerous in terms of STDs (which is a real issue) and ultimately destructive to any real intimacy.  My retort was that we have rules of safety about safe sex, our intimacy is enhanced by true openness and honesty about everything, and also that fact that our relationship is constructive; “what can be more constructive than adding value and quality to our lives” (or something very similar to that).

Had we more time, I would have liked to make distinctions between polygamy of the kind that one of the other guests experienced and the polyamory–the loving, open, and honest relationship–that Ginny and I have.  The other people I have in my life that I am interested in pursuing some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship (they are few, and I think they know who they are), are not being told that this is some divine command, they are not 15 years old, and I am not their superior.  We are equals; adults deciding to pursue relationships which mean something to us.

The bottom line, I think, is that our culture understands what monogamy is.  Even if it is serial monogamy, the idea is simple, feels comfortable, and is usually assumed by most of Americans.  Our culture is becoming more familiar with what polygamy is (at least in terms of the FLDS churches).  And even when they have a more positive model, say like in the show Big Love (which I have seen and like, to some extent), there are still problems such as the fact that it is always men with multiple women, and never the other way around.  Even when you have a Bill Henrickson who genuinely cares for his wives (Big Love), none of them are allowed other lovers.  This is an inequality borne of religious patriarchal thinking, not of genuine open-mindedness and desire to add love and joy to your life without social constraints which are ultimately based upon a relationship model borne out of a property relationship.  So, in our culture non-monogamy is probably associated with male domination of women, even if we can point out the occasional (even if only sometimes fictional) loving counter-example of such.

Polyamory is about treating all adults as, well, adults.  It is about deciding how you want to live your life, with whom, and being open and honest about our desires.  We, as a culture, are so far from understanding the implications of this that a term like “polyamory” just does not have a mental category in which to sit for most people.  Yes, if I had been given a 20 minute segment on the show to talk about polyamory, define it, and give examples and have other people, women and men, talk about the freedom, care, and rewards of living such a life then at least some people would begin to see what it is all about.  But that is not what happened yesterday.

When he introduced us, it was in terms of “here is a man who may want to get married, but he will still want to date other women.”  And not “here are two people who are in love, are committed to each other, have a healthy relationship, and who may have other lovers, boyfriends, and girlfriends.”  The former is based upon tropes common to our culture, the latter is not.

That idea is just too far removed from talk-show America.  And just like the term atheist, which is getting more press and is becoming more accepted (slowly), polyamory is a term that many think we just can’t use right now.  But with time, effort, and some patience (but not too much patience) that will change.