My conservative friend Brad Torgersen wrote this note on Facebook:
My wife informs me that the marriage of a close family friend is breaking up. Infidelity. I see it as a cautionary tale. No matter how strong your relationship with your spouse may be, it only takes being weak once to screw the whole thing up. In my 10 years in the military I’ve seen a lot of people play around on TDY. I always try to make a point of wearing my marriage on my sleeve when I am away from home. It’s a reminder to me that I am not looking for a fling, and it’s a reminder to others that I am not looking for a fling. And yes, I know some women adore a happily married man. And that this may make me a bigger target. The choice is still mine, however. Nobody makes me cheat. I have to want to first. I refuse. I refuse to disrespect and dishonor my best friend & eternal companion like that. I would rather divorce her honestly, than cheat behind her back. Our friend is now in an agony of shame, anger, humiliation, and confusion. It’s such a needless waste.
Now, I doubt Brad is much down with kinky polyamory, given that previously he’s posted links to the only safe sex being “get married and be faithful,” stating “we in modern society have invented 101 excuses for ourselves as to why this isn’t practical, or even necessary.” But the fascinating thing is how much overlap there is between healthy monogamy and healthy polyamory.
Because even with multiple partners, if you don’t have fidelity, you don’t have a relationship.
In polyamory, the relationship is no longer defined by exclusive sex – but it’s doubtlessly defined by some expectations. Many of those are sexual, such as “You’ll always use safe sex” or “You’ll always let me know who you’re with so I can make an informed decision.” But when sex ceases to be the defining factor of your relationship, then the other expectations become that much more critical – “You’ll always be there for me when I need you,” or “Friday night is our special movie night,” or “This restaurant is our special romantic rendezvous, for no others.”
Keeping those agreements is fidelity. And if you can’t keep those, then you wind up inflicting the same agonies of shame, anger, humiliation, and confusion.
Look, those agreements are who you are as a couple. And when you suddenly decide to break those bonds, either out of convenience or just out of neglect, then suddenly your partner doesn’t know what you mean to each other. They’re just as important as the “no sex with anyone but me bond,” and when broken it creates a cascade of terror in that “Well, does s/he still love me? How could s/he do that to me? Should we be together? How could they claim they love me and yet manage to hurt me so deeply?”
Which is not to say that such expectations have to be lasting bonds. Relationships are dynamic things (hell, Gini and I started off as monogamous, and there’s never a guarantee we won’t switch back if it makes us both more comfortable), and sometimes you want to renegotiate that Friday night movie night, or have unprotected sex, or bring a new lover to that special French cafe.
But too many bad poly relationships broach that by shattering the agreement, and then asking forgiveness. Forgiveness is often given, because “getting a burger with some other girl at that diner” seems like a small, petty thing to get so wounded over. Yet it’s not a small thing. It’s something that defined you, together, and now suddenly it defines someone else, too, leaving one partner to wonder what the moorings of this this particular pair-bond is. You’ve broken fidelity, and that weakens everything else to the point where your partner has to wonder what trust must be accidentally broached next.
And is that really polyamory? Or just you, doing as you please, regardless of the hurt caused? ‘Cause there’s not much love in that, Jack.
The problem with poly is that quite often, you don’t understand how vital these trusts are until you break them. Maybe your lover thought your affectionate kiss on the forehead was exclusive to her, and discovering that you do with that anyone you like is going to wound her. Maybe your partner didn’t understand how emotionally specific those burgers at the diner were to you. Which is why, in a poly relationship (or in any relationship, really, but the poly ones especially), you have to be up-front about defining your needs and ever watchful of what your partners may think of as special to them.
My wife, who is wise and wonderful, refers to our style of relationship as “polyfidelity.” I think that’s a wonderful term, and correct. And one of many wondrous reasons why I go out of my way to keep my agreements with her.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.