Is She Really Going Out with Him? Poly/Mono Partnerships

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?

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

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?

Would You?

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.

4 thoughts on “Is She Really Going Out with Him? Poly/Mono Partnerships”

  1. “The biggest irony: I’m beginning to think (and hear) that both the men in my life are basically monogamous.”

    You know, contrary to the popular belief that all males want to “sow their seed to every available female” a lot of research has found that there are many men who seem to settle into monogamy willingly and with a sense of happy security. Don’t ask me where I read that; I have had to read so many sociology, sexuality, gender, and psych books these last four years for my classes so I cannot remember. It ties into the other issue studies have shown which is that men fare far worse after divorce even when they initiate it. This is because apparently males find adjusting to another partner a lot more difficult than females. The article I read likened it to the male lions; they have that pride of females but it is the females who do all the hard work of hunting the food and bringing it back to the herd; the male just lies around a lot and sleeps. In other words, many males, once in a comfort zone, won’t leave it because the effort (and risk of rejection by both the new females and the mate they already have) is not worth the energy they would have to expend on it so they take the path of least resistance and remain monogamous. Emotionally, males are said to be the more fragile (yeah I know, we could argue that one all day) and as such this is another reason cited for them remaining monogamous; they are afraid to lose their chosen mate.

    Whatever you believe about those points I raised, it is interesting that the study recently done to see how sexual the genders are (both homo and hetero) showed that women are far more receptive to sexual signals. Maybe women are the ones who are not as monogamous but society (and male genetic pressures) have pushed them into thinking they are more monogamous than males. I have no idea which it is (not being a scientist and all that) but it is interesting fodder for discussion.

  2. Love reading your ponderings…I see both poly and mono as a choice. My partner and I are mono by choice, not by demand. Should one, or both, of us change our minds we would need to renegotiate our union. As it is, fidelity as a choice is, as I imagine the poly choice, a spiritual path.

  3. Maria, I look forward to your articles each week. Thank you! Your experiences and stories have helped me deepen my own inquiry into and exploration of sexuality and relationships. I loved how Sage was honest enough to say that she hadn’t been able to cultivate compersion, but that she is “solidly satisfied.” It takes a lot of self-knowledge and courage to accept yourself exactly where you are and still allow room for the people you love to be who they are.

    I just had to share this two-minute video of the Dalai Lama talking about his own jealousy. He is telling a story about himself as a child and it is not related to sexual jealousy. Still, it is a wonderful expression of someone relating to his own jealousy with tenderness and humor–in short, both accepting himself where he was *and* wanting his heart to open even further, so that he could take joy in another’s happiness.

    It is hard for me to imagine that any of us simply arrive at compersion one day and abide in this static state. I am new to these experiences, but I have been all over the board in my responses to my lovers’ relationships and sexual pleasure with others–from feeling raging jealousy to having old, unresolved grief triggered (and released) to taking deep joy in their happiness. What I can say, without doubt, is that jealousy causes as much pain (if not, perhaps, more) for me as it has for my lovers. I am tired of grasping for security. In truth, there is none. And when I have loved well, with heart and hands unclenched, open to all that life brings, like Sage, I am solidly satisfied.

  4. Great article, Maria!

    The biggest irony: I’m beginning to think (and hear) that both the men in my life are basically monogamous.

    I’ve been interested in ‘ironies’ for a while and pondering why they may be anything but ironies!

    By the time a person (functioning within a ‘normative’ cultural experience in the west) first dates, they may be well into their teens. Whatever is involved, and however long this first contact endures, there will likely be others in sequence but perhaps (probably), not in very large numbers.

    By the time a person gets to their first ‘serious’ relationship they have no previous ‘serious’ relationships but then may get locked in to their first ‘long haul’ expectation and indeed long-ish haul stint, in partnership (regardless of extra-curricular activities).

    It seems to me that what we currently think of as a poly alternative to mono, may often be none other than the essentially mono core, getting chance to be exposed to a far wider and deeper range of people; opening said person out to have much richer experience upon which to make their still essentially mono decisions, about a core partnership.

    This is sensible and what we should expect from a maturing person – the desire to go deeper/further to find quality through breadth and richness; comparison and contrast; grounded learning about the self and what it truly desires.

    Most people get into a pattern of relating at a time when they are insufficiently experienced to maximise their exchanges with others. So embarking on a pattern of serially falling into the same hole, should not be considered out of the ordinary!

    True poly would prove hard to authenticate, unless it could be separated off from the realities of pragmatism in relationship (e.g. supply). Once you have secured supply on a satisfactory basis you can begin to ask the question ‘Is this what I want?’ which is more concrete than the abstract and unfocused ‘What do I want?’ – so you can start to learn, once the foundations are correct.

    Monogamy as a ‘strict concept’ basically comes from morality. And morality is designed to constrain new and personal experience (discovery) and subsume it under ancient and emotionally-driven experience (regulatory). Morality is for children – it is actually a necessary stage in development and without it we would have many more psychopaths. But morality is like a clay pot that must be consciously shattered on the ground once one enters into any rite of passage into adulthood.

    One inevitably collects some of those shards and splinters. And, as one travels along, a new pot that is uniquely ‘who I am’ is synthesized from the combination of the shattered fragments I wish to retain (and find useful) plus the new experiences I am choosing and grafting in along with those shards – creating the mosaic of my becoming – a becoming I am constantly (and hopefully consciously), shaping.

    It could be argued that the ‘mid-life crisis’ phenomenon provides evidence that those who fail to smash that pot when they really ought to, in order to be healthy, ultimately come to a point where the denial can no longer be sustained (because the passage of time and ageing, demonstrates the need for transformation, due to waning power). Arguably, this results in only a phase of frenzied activity, before a new form of the old denial gently lulls the person back to sleep and the second half of a ‘life-coma’.

    This question of sexual choices cannot truly be separated from overarching narrative themes in the life cycle.

    Maybe it is no bad thing therefore if what seems like poly turns out to be a basis for a much deeper mono, for some. Certainly, wherever there is grey, there is life – a chance for people to go deeper.

    Maybe it’s what they do when they get there that brings us back to a crux of ‘reaping the benefits of learned substance’ over ‘sowing in obsession around matters form’.

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