One of the reasons monogamy is so damned pervasive is that you can win at monogamy. Every relationship in a monogamous setting has the goal baked right in: Date. Get engaged. Move in together. Marry. Don’t cheat. Die.
…aaaaand you’ve won at monogamy! Collect your prize from the funeral director in the form of happy signs from your mourners. They’ll all praise your legendary love. Fifty years together and they were still holding hands on their deathbed? My God, how inspiring.
Me being stupid, I ported that ideology straight into my poly, a subtle corrosion I didn’t notice until about six months ago.
Polyamory’s got a lot of overlap with monogamy, because like Soylent Green, both are made of people. But once you remove that core assumption that “exclusive sex is what defines us,” then everything else gets kicked strangely, bizarrely, up for play. How are you supposed to have children? Can you hold hands with your lover in public? How does the insurance work?
After a while in polyamory, you start to feel exactly how many aspects in a relationship are actually not fundaments, but rather questions that we assume don’t need to be negotiated. And those unquestioned assumptions are like poisons, leaking into the ground water – a subtle corrosion that can harm you in small ways over time.
My corrosion was approaching long-term poly relationships as though they were monogamous.
Here’s the secret truth of poly: it allows you to successfully date people you could never marry. You see the pressures of the Great Monogamous Victory crushing otherwise-happy relationships: I think we all know a couple who got along just fine as long as they had separate apartments and just had fun going to movies , but the moment they moved in together they devoured each other. But that monogamy train, man, it keeps on moving; if you’ve been dating casually for a while, well, eventually you gotta Get Serious.
Getting Serious involves stepping right in the lion cage with their worst faults. Does she have a temper? Well, as her boyfriend, you’re gonna be called on to calm her down when she starts getting angry, or at least to stand support as she breathes vitriol upon whatever’s pissing her off. Is he lazy? Well, you’re the one who’s going to be trying to pay the bills while his unemployed ass spends the weekend in his underwear playing Halo 4.
Getting Serious means you become, to a large extent, your lover’s primary therapist, because you’re with them 24/7 and you have to learn to deal with all of their moods. You might find his jealousy exasperating, but you can’t really walk away – as the primary, your responsibility to either defuse, reassure, or route around it. And I know, I know, it doesn’t necessarily have to work like that – but for most of functioning monogamy, if you’re relying on someone else to satisfy your emotional needs, and that someone is someone you can be sexually attracted to, then Bad Things are gonna creep in around the edges.
But with poly, if you hate the way your lover spends her weekends doing nothing but playing Borderlands 2, you can designate that as Not Your Problem. That laziness does not mean she is a bad person; it means there are certain circumstances under which you shouldn’t be hanging out. You don’t have to merge your lives. You can go on dates when your slothful partner feels like rousting themselves, and leave them to their own devices the rest of the time.
In other words, you can maintain light sexual relationships for as long as you’re comfortable with them. You don’t have to take it to the next level. There is no next level. There’s only what you want to have – and if that involves wanting to deal with her temper, then you can do that, too.
Now. The problem I made was approaching every poly relationship as if they were all going to reach Gini’s level.
My wife is my primary partner, but that term is so weaksauce when it comes to what Gini and I have. We fit together in every way that really matters, having spent thirteen years in the Pit Of Monogamy wrestling with each other’s issues… and we’ve been victorious because, over time, we’ve come to implicitly trust in each other’s good will. Which is not to say that Gini doesn’t knife me in the heart occasionally, but when she does I know that there’s no malice in it. She’s spent so much time trying to be kind and courteous and respectful of me that any bruises I get must, logically, be by accident.
Gini is the great love of my life.
Every woman I date, then, must therefore be on the path to become a similarly great love.
And the problem is that when you uncork that kind of sweeping romance at someone, it’s hard to say no; I’m passionate and poetic, so when I’d mutter yes, we’re meant to be together in their ears, they’d reply yes, this is special, it’s so amazing, isn’t it? And we’d start dating, and subconsciously what I’d be trying to do was groom them to be as intense and critical in my life as Gini is. Because hey, Gini was the best thing in my life, and therefore all paths must lead to something very like Gini.
But that’s the Monogamous Victory speaking. I’d swapped out “Get married, die” for “Have someone else as wonderful for me as Gini is,” but the victory condition was there all the same. And as such, I had to Get Serious with every woman I dated, as soon as possible, or I was losing.
Which led to tons of dysfunction. When we had a disagreement, it was critical not just to resolve the disagreement, but to approach this as a primary relationship and to ask all the followup questions that sprung from that: why did you think that poorly of me? What assumptions were we both making that led to this? Do you understand how exactly that hurt, and why, and grasp every reason why you must never do that again?
I believe in open communication. But there are also times when too much communication can smother a relationship. And all the while, I was having these Great Loves that I thought were the Next Big Thing, each of which evaporated in less than a year. And my poor, poor partners had to deal with a string of ridiculous NRE, followed by ridiculously strained conversations as I tried to turn what was a pretty good LDR into ZOMG THIS MUST BE CRITICAL TO OUR LIVES TOGETHER FOREVER.
Which is ridiculous. Gini is the best thing that ever happened to me, a lucky lightning strike, and cultivating every relationship as though eternal beauty was the goal led to, ironically, premature collapse. If I’d just been able to go, “Hey, that’s pretty cool, can we have a good time when we’re together?” I’d probably still be dating half of them. As it was, I was inadvertently slighting Gini (as if every relationship could become what we had made!) and applying a constant, hideous pressure to relationships that didn’t need them.
They crumbled. As they must.
But that’s the thing about poly: you have so many opinions that you’ve inhaled from monogamy, unwittingly taking it into your system, that you don’t realize how it’s affecting your life. For me, I carried this subliminal concern that every relationship had to go somewhere. But they don’t. Sometimes, they can just be what they are, hanging about. Stasis is not necessarily a bad thing, in polyamory.
Relationships are not Pokemon, man. They don’t need to evolve.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.