A few days ago, someone asked an interesting question about the way polyamory is perceived by the larger monogamous world around us. Why is it, this person wondered, that people outside the poly community so often react with fear to the idea of loving more than one person at once?
When I thought about the question, it brought up another one in my head: Why is it that people inside the poly community so often react with fear to the idea of loving more than one person at once?
When I look around, I see all sorts of people who want more than one lover, but who are terrified of the idea. One of the first questions I’m asked when people who are in couples send me emails about opening up to polyamory is, How can we protect what we have? How can we make sure that polyamory won’t change things for us? Polyamory is scary, according to this view; we need protection from it.
And the answers are, you can’t, and you can’t. Any life change may threaten the relationship you have; polyamory will change things for you, and that’s okay.
But still the fear lingers. It drives many of the relationship agreements that people, especially people new to polyamory, make. It underlies the structures that people look for. It determines the rules that people try to play by–or, more often, try to place on any new partners they may find.
Polyamorous people like to call what we do “ethical non-monogamy.” But when I ask people what “ethical” means, most often the answers I get don’t go beyond “be open and be honest.” While that’s a start, there’s a lot more to being ethical than being honest! If I were to walk up to you, the reader, and say “I’m going to hit you in the face with this railroad tie now” and then I hit you in the face with a railroad tie, I have been open and honest, but I have not been ethical.
The poly community prides itself on ethical non-monogamy. We need to do a better job at thinking about what that means.
In the book Eve and I are writing, we have chosen to align our ethical compass using two guiding principles: The people in a relationship are more important than the relationship and Don’t treat people as things. You will notice that “be open” and “be honest” are not among these axioms, because we believe they are corollaries, consequences of aligning our moral sextant to the stars of these two axioms. Being dishonest deprives people of the ability to offer informed consent; when we make people do what we want them to do, without their consent, we are treating them as things.
There are other corollaries as well. If I am in a relationship, and I am asking, How can I make sure my partner doesn’t leave me? I am forgetting the first moral axiom: The people in the relationship are more important than the relationship. If my partner wants to leave, she should be free to do so. If I seek to keep her against her wishes, through rules, structures or any other means, I am saying the relationship is more important than she is. That is not ethical polyamory.
What happens when we align ourselves to these two moral axioms? When that happens, a lot of the common rules and structures we see all around us in polyamory begin to look unethical.
For example, let’s look at a very common arrangement in the poly community that we often see when existing couples open their relationship to new partners: hierarchy and veto. These things are necessary, I often hear, because the world is full of unethical people, people of dubious intent and even more dubious agendas, people who will try to come into your relationship and steal one partner away. And that’s absolutely true. In fact, such behavior is common enough that the poly community has a term for such people: “cowboys” (or “cowgirls”), people trying to “rope one off from the herd.” They exist, absolutely. I’ve run across people like this in my own relationships.
The problem is, I don’t think saying “we need rules to protect ourselves from cowboys” aligns well with ethical non-monogamy. There are people in the world who may want to split a couple up, you bet. But they can’t. It’s not possible. Not without the couple’s help. A cowboy can’t “make” a couple break up. A couple only breaks up if the people involved choose to make it happen. It seems easy for us to forget this, even though it’s so simple. It’s as if we have a collective sense of learned helplessness about our own relationships: we don’t understand that the way to avoid breaking up with a partner is… don’t break up with your partner. The way to make a relationship strong and secure is to work on the relationship.
When we make rules such as veto, we are basically saying, “We think some new partners behave badly, so we are going to treat all new partners as bad actors.” That, to me, violates the ethical principle of “Don’t treat people as things.” The alternative to treating people as things is treating people as people; that is, recognizing that every person is unique, and not holding the sins of some people against all people.
What does that actually mean? How do we behave ethically?
We trust our partners, and trust our communication skills. We voice concerns when we have them, and work with our partners to resolve the issues. We treat our partners as free people who are in a relationship with us by choice.
I know it’s hard. We live in a society that says “when you fall in love you’ll live Happy Ever After” and doesn’t actually teach trust or communication. So we have to learn them and work on them.
But it goes back to what I said before: A new partner can’t break up a relationship. It can’t happen. If the couple wants to stay together, they will stay together. If one member of the couple wants to leave, then that person will leave. Rules won’t change that, and a rule that could change that would be holding the relationship to be more important than the people in the relationship.
If my partner wants to leave, she is free to leave. I do not ask, What rules can make her stay? but rather, How can I be a person who strives to have positive qualities that add value to her life, so we can build a relationship where she wants to stay?
The real question is not What rules do we need to stay safe? but rather, Do you trust your partner to want to be with you, even if a shiny piece of hot ass asks him to leave?
If the answer is “no,” perhaps working on communication and trust might be a better solution that being poly right at this moment. That, perhaps, is the beginning of not treating people like things.
Why does monogamous culture seem to fear the idea of loving more than one person at a time? There might be a lot of reasons. We can point to tradition, fear of the unknown, fear of change, or any of a thousand other things. But can we really expect the world not to be afraid of loving more than one person, when we ourselves, the people who do it, are so afraid of it?