By Maria Padhila
If you’re polyamorous, would you ever get involved with someone who’s monogamous? If you’re monogamous, would you ever even consider a relationship with someone who is poly?
And when you encounter a relationship of such seeming opposites, do you think to yourself: How did that happen? How did it work out? And/or: How could they ‘put up with’ it?
Well, how does any relationship happen? And how do you ‘put up with’ anything the people you love do? You either love the things about them that make them different, or you shrug them off as annoying but ‘worth it’, or you can’t deal, and you leave.
But living in awareness requires self-monitoring of these kinds of emotions and thoughts, at every moment possible. What do you love, what can you live with, what is unacceptable, what is unacceptable today but might be rewarding tomorrow?
Models of romance and marriage don’t allow for this kind of ambiguity. It sounds cold, detached, unromantic. They say: Either you love him, every last thing about him, forever, or you don’t. Either you’re poly, or your mono. Either you truly care about me, or you still trade funny texts with your ex-girlfriend, you jerk. Eyes always on my face only, or you’re a low-down dirty cheating bastard sneaking glances at that woman’s chest. Yes, it tends to go in that direction, that kind of thinking.
There are enough poly/mono couples out there to create two email lists that fill my inbox. One is for poly people with mono partners (about 800 members); the other for monos with poly partners (about 700); but there’s plenty of cross-posting. Several, but by no means all, are people who have just realized their desire to have more than one partner — or they’re the partner of the person who has realized that desire. What do we do now? is their big question. Others talk about boundaries and how they change, or the attitudes and difficulties of others, such as family members or poly partners. How to negotiate jealousy is of course a big one. The groups are lively and people are outspoken and have been pretty helpful.
I’ve known, personally and through history, of courageous acceptances and even cherishing of vast differences, bridged through some kind of miracle of unconditional love. Men who not only stayed married to lesbians during times when coming out was deadly dangerous, but supported them financially and emotionally and socially, through whatever obstacles, allowing them all the freedom either could risk — for instance. I’ve also known and read of people who have made dreadful, soul-killing or physically dangerous accommodations, because they could see no alternative, or because they feared the alternative.
Are you making accommodations, or are you making a choice, one that is self-empowered, one that is made out of love? This is the crux of the issue, it seems to me.
A woman whose writing I encountered through these email lists is one who does this kind of soul-search. Sage is a writer who is monogamous and lives with a polyamorous man. After the end of a 28-year marriage — with, she says, many of those years “difficult” — she met her current partner, who told her he was polyamorous. Because she had considered open marriage in the past, she says, she didn’t “run for the hills.”
How did it work out? Recently, she wrote in her Polyamorous People blog:
Today is the three-year anniversary of my first date with Z and it’s a time of natural reflection. Would I do it all again knowing what I know now?
It’s a really tricky question. My answer: No, I wouldn’t do it again — if I could go back and keep all that I’ve learned through having had the experience. A bit like being 19 again, knowing all that you know at 40 or 50. It just doesn’t work that way, but oh, if only it could. I suppose it comes down to an underlying question: was there any easier way?
In her blog introduction, she writes: “I don’t shy away from issues like sadness, insecurity and jealousy because they’re real, and I go through them just like everybody else …”
She doesn’t shy away from ambiguity, either. Every day’s communications, whether in the blog or in email lists, reveal a willingness to question and be open about where she is in her journey, and to look frankly at whether these thoughts and opinions come from engaged reflection or just having a bad day. (I find the same sort of awareness among the commenters on Planet Waves; I rarely find it in the comment rolls on most mainstream sites, such as Salon and Slate, although many of those commenters admittedly have us beat when it comes to the snarky one-liner.)
In fact, she even considered taking her book, Poly for a Partner, off sale, because she worried it gave people too much hope that poly/mono relationships are possible, and she wasn’t seeing enough evidence of happy, functioning relationships around her to justify that. Currently, she’s collecting stories of such relationships, in an effort to get a rounded picture. (It’s the usual dilemma of research — you always hear about the problems; those who aren’t troubled aren’t writing in as often or as loudly.)
The reaction she tends to get from others — and even from the voice inside herself — is “What’s in it for me?” So she came up with a list of 11 benefits for a mono person in a relationship with a poly partner.
The first: “I didn’t end my relationship. Ending an otherwise good relationship over just one issue is a very emotional, heart-wrenching affair.”
Second: “I have an extremely happy, appreciative partner who realizes the lengths I have gone to understand and accept him. What goes around, comes around.”
Third: “I am building a relationship with a woman I find very interesting and I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to know.”
But my favorite is number six: “Polyamory is a great tool for personal growth and self- awareness.”
I think you could say that about all relationships, not simply polyamorous ones, though negotiating that kind does put it right in your face. Recently, the acupuncturist I go to said something I love and will remember always: “Relationships are the technology for bringing up all the shit.”
Sage says more about this process of growth and self-awareness in other posts. For instance: “Trying to impose monogamy on my current relationship would be forcing Z to be less than he is, which immediately sets up a dynamic of sacrifice. I would be aware of his sacrifice and feel that I must do the same. Instead of a relationship that allows us to be everything we want and need to be, it would have started contracting because it would have been built on sacrifice.”
Recently, she added two more benefits to the list. “These two are actually the most important of all, but they took a while to become evident,” she writes:
“12. The satisfaction of allowing the person I love most in the world to be himself. This is different from compersion. If you can feel compersion that’s wonderful, but I’ll settle for solidly satisfied.
“13. Being in an open relationship has forced me to look for myself in ways that I don’t believe I would have done in a monogamous relationship. It has provided the impetus for me to seek out and fill myself up with the things that make my heart sing and make me who I truly am, instead of too often trying to find those things via my partner.”
This is not to say that one can’t do these things in a monogamous relationship, or in a self-relationship. But I’m beginning to see that as long as one looks to others, you don’t get the space to see and know yourself.
The ironies abound, when it comes to my own present tense. My best friend recently looked at me sidelong and said, “I don’t know, it sounds to me like you better program in some downtime for yourself.” I have not been alone, except when running, for weeks. And I haven’t been running enough. The biggest irony: I’m beginning to think (and hear) that both the men in my life are basically monogamous. That puts us in a not-unusual structure of the V with myself as a hinge (and hinges have to be flexible, so I damn well better make time to work out).
OK, they both have ‘hall passes’. (And do I ever dislike the scenario of bad boy and punishing matriarch that the phrase calls to mind — though maybe it could be a little bit fun under some circumstances.) But they own their own sexuality — I don’t make the rules for them, aside from health and safety boundaries. I think a big mistake of our society is making women responsible for issuing the passes, so to speak — we’re supposed to control and channel men’s sexuality, as if they aren’t capable of doing it on their own. And everyone knows men are more than capable of doing it on their own. Bah-dum.
But they don’t seem compelled to use the passes at every opportunity. Yeah, sometimes it’s good to just watch a game, and sometimes one has to fix the car. They’re pretty busy guys. They’ve got a lot going on, a lot of work and friends and things to do. It may be that the greatest additional love of their lives may walk in the door this afternoon. But it’s just as likely that in the future I may need to figure out how this poly/mono thing works.