I’ve heard that charge from people on the Internet, usually folks who read one of my blog posts and say, “You have five girlfriends? That’s so selfish! You’re hogging all the women for yourself.”
Lately, I’ve been hearing it from an entirely different quarter: this time, from people who are reacting to the fact that I recommend relationships that aren’t built on rules. “You don’t have rules? That’s so selfish! You just want to run around doing anything you please!”
These accusations are a bit of a head-scratcher. There are two different directions I could take in writing about this. On the one hand, polyamory and a life without rules aren’t really selfish at all, and accusations of selfishness shine an interesting light on the conceptual frameworks we use to view the world. On the other hand, calling someone “selfish” is an effective shaming technique because we think of selfishness as an inherently, incontrovertibly bad thing, so it is difficult for someone accused of selfishness to say, “Well of course I am, and that’s good!” Accusations of “you’re selfish” are an attempt to provoke shame over perceived transgressions of some kind of social norm.
And then, when I sat down to write this, I thought: hey, why choose one? I’m poly! I’ll write about both.
Let’s start out by looking at the accusations themselves.
Is it selfish to have multiple partners? Is it selfish to construct relationships without rules?
Someone who looks at me and my sweeties might think, “Wow, this guy is taking all these women! He has five partners, and I only get one (or, perhaps, none at all)!” Someone who looks at my relationship structures might think, “Wow, this guy says his partners can’t put rules on him! He gets to do anything he wants!” And, from a certain narrow, through-a-keyhole viewpoint, that makes sense.
What both complaints miss is the idea that it’s not about me. Yes, I have five partners…and they all have other partners besides me! I’m not “hogging all the women”–far from it. If you shift the perspective off me and onto each of my sweeties, from their perspective I am one of several partners that they each have.
The same thing applies to the complaint about rules. When you shift the perspective off me and onto my sweeties, you see that I do not place rules on them. Each of my sweeties is free to make her own choices, without me telling her what to do–though we all negotiate around our needs. I place no restrictions on them because I am confident that, if I advocate for a need, my partners will choose to meet it. They’re with me because they want to be; if I express my needs, they will meet them because they want to.
In both cases, the complaint that I am being selfish focuses only on me. The person making the complaint is placing himself in my position and seeing the benefit to me from my relationship structures…without looking at the situation from the point of view of my partners, or examining the benefit to any of them.
Which is–dare I say it?–kind of a selfish perspective from which to make this complaint.
From a different perspective, one could argue that monogamy is selfish. After all, in a monogamous relationship, your partner is yours and yours alone. When you have a partner, that partner belongs to you; nobody else is allowed to touch.
And it could even be argued that rules-based relationships are selfish. The act of passing a rule, which for this purpose I mean as a restriction placed by one person on the behavior of another, is inherently selfish: when Alice passes a rule, she is attempting to get her needs met from Bob–the rules are not about Bob’s needs, or his other partners’ needs. I have never met anyone who says something like “Bob, honey, you have a new girlfriend? I would like to make sure your new girlfriend has her needs met, so I would like a rule that says you are required to spend the night with her at least once a week.”
No, in the real world, rules tend to look more like “I want to wake up beside you each morning, so you can’t spend the night with another lover.” Or “I want to preserve my sense of specialness, so you can’t take anyone else to our favorite restaurant.” Or “I want a sense of control over your other relationships, so I need to have a veto arrangement.” The common element of each of these rules–all three of which are, in my experience, quite common in poly relationships, is “I want.”
If you’re shaking your head and saying “Franklin, you asshole, are you saying every monogamous person or everyone who uses rules in their relationships is selfish? You bastard!”…hang on a second and let me explore the second part of this idea, which is that…
Selfishness is not (necessarily) a bad thing.
In its most basic sense, selfishness is a necessary part of any healthy relationship, or for that matter, any healthy life. We cannot set personal boundaries if we do not have a sense of motivated self-interest. We cannot care for others if we do not take care of ourselves.
We make choices every day, especially in our relationship lives, for reasons that can legitimately be called “selfish.” We all, at least ideally, seek relationships that make our lives better: that make us happier, add value to our lives, bring out the best in us, fill our days with joy. We would likely consider an unfulfilling relationship that we remained in even though we gained nothing from it dysfunctional, even soul-destroying. At the end of the day, we make the choices we make because we hope to be better off by them.
That doesn’t mean we are, or should be, selfish in every moment of our day-to-day decisions. We may stay with a partner through rough times, or make choices that help support a partner but cost us something, because we are committed to the long-term success of that relationship. But we’re committed to the long-term success of that relationship because enlightened selfishness takes the long view.
And selfishness is not zero-sum. We tend to think of selfishness as gaining at other people’s expense, but in fact, when we commit to a relationship that promotes the growth and happiness of everyone involved, everyone wins! My partners are with me because being with me makes their lives better. I am with them because being with them makes my life better. We continue to invest in those relationships even when they’re difficult because we look at global, not local, maxima. I may choose to give up something I want today for the sake of my partner, knowing that I am in the relationship for the long haul, and it will bring me joy into the future.
I think most people would agree that a relationship in which we sacrifice our happiness for the sake of another person without any possible hope of happiness, now or in the future, is probably not a good relationship. I think we’d all agree that a relationship in which we damage ourselves without hope of positive outcome is not healthy. There is always an element of selfishness (or, perhaps, self-interest, though the distinction between the two is often subjective and depends on which way you’re peering through the keyhole) in any healthy relationship; on some level, we know it’s impossible to sacrifice our own happiness for someone else’s, and that someone who expects us to is being perhaps a bit sociopathic.
Yet we still use “you’re selfish!” as a go-to tool of shame and control. We use it, ironically, when we want someone else to do something different–in other words, when we’re being selfish.
Some selfishness is okay. That kind lets us set and protect our boundaries, advocate for our needs, and choose relationships that are positive and rewarding. Some selfishness is not okay. That kind seeks to gain at other people’s expense, to get what we need without considering the needs of others, to take rewards that are denied to other people.
There are those who say that people who do not believe in God are incapable of being moral. I see a parallel in the idea that those who have no rules are certain to stomp willy-nilly all over their partners. Both assume that it is only external structures, restrictions imposed on us from the outside, that prevent us from consuming everything around us in an orgy of destructive selfishness.
No, polyamory isn’t inherently selfish. Polyamorous relationships built without rules aren’t inherently selfish, either. But that’s not to say that being selfish would automatically make them bad. It is time, I think, that we stop using “you’re selfish!” to club people who do what we don’t want them to, and instead consider that relationships that benefit everyone involved, without providing for some people at the expense of others, are in fact the relationships we should strive for.
Even if someone else finds them “selfish.”