Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about the assumptions we make in our relationships, and how those assumptions can influence our relationship outcomes, for good or for ill.
I’ve been meaning to revisit that idea for quite some time, specifically with an eye toward the assumptions we make in polyamorous relationships. While those of us in polyamorous relationships might think we have thrown off the shackles of conventional monogamy, the ideas we’ve grown up with can insinuate themselves quite deeply into our worldview. Like dandelions, which have evolved resistance to the hoe and the spade by developing very deep roots, those ideas are not so easily plucked.
In talking with poly folks all over the place, I’ve observed correlation between some of the assumptions we carry into our relationships and the way those relationships look.
One of the relationship assumptions that can creep into polyamory is the Highlander: the idea that, at the end of the day, “there can be only one.” One relationship that’s “best,” one relationship that’s the “main” or “most real,” one relationship that matters more than the others. This relationship is, unsurprisingly, usually the one that’s been there for the longest time and has had the most opportunity to develop mutual commitments, obligations, perhaps even children.
It’s surprisingly easy to confuse relationship commitment with financial or practical entanglement, and to believe that losing those practical entanglements must mean a loss of commitment. There’s also, I think, a bit of holdover from our Puritan ancestry: we measure value by work and investment, but work and investment are unpleasant things we do only as long as we believe we have to. Given a choice, we’d discard them in a heartbeat, to go dancing through fields of daisies without a care in the world.
What does this assumption reveal? It reveals a deep idea that monogamy is actually right. There really is only one commitment that matters, when you get down to brass tacks. Sure, we can have other dalliances, up to a point; but really, you can’t fully commit to and fully love more than one person–at least not romantically. (You can, apparently, fully commit to two children, but that, we are solemnly told, is different.)
This assumption often speaks to our fears: “If I’m not on top of the heap, someone else will be, and I’ll lose what I have; my partner, in committing to someone else, will withdraw commitment from me.”
An assumption that is sometimes proposed as an antidote to this is the Archie Bunker: the notion that everyone involved with a common partner is “all in the family.” It’s often coupled with assumptions about sex and sexual availability (“If you’re sleeping with her, I get to sleep with her too!”) or about interpersonal relationships (“You don’t have to worry, honey, she will be your sister-wife!”). If the Highlander seeks to contain fear through systems of rank, the Archie Bunker tries to control it by enforcing mandatory connection. These may seem like opposite ideas, this king-of-the-hill approach vs. the all-for-one-and-one-for-all family, but ultimately, they are both two sides of the same coin: We manage fear by controlling the form our relationships take.
Another relationship assumption that we can carry into polyamory is the Parts Is Parts Hypothesis: the idea that there’s nothing really special or compelling about us, so we need to be wary of anyone with the same parts. Parts are interchangeable, after all. If you find an alternator for your car that works better than the one that’s already there, you wouldn’t need the old one any more. Ergo, if I’m an alternator, I can let my partner have spark plugs or fuel injectors, but I best keep her away from other alternators! If I’m a dude, I can let my gal have other women, but if she’s with another man, I’ll be as obsolete as an old alternator.
It can be surprisingly hard to see the value we bring to our relationships. We don’t live in a society that teaches us to be secure, confident individuals; after all, secure, confident individuals can’t be easily persuaded to buy stuff to prove their value. Polyamory challenges us to see our own worth, and that’s no easy thing to do.
What assumptions help make for healthy polyamorous relationships? Unsurprisingly, the same ones that help to make healthy monogamous relationships: Our partners love and cherish us. Our partners want to be with us, and to build loving, happy relationships with us. We are, each of us, unique and irreplaceable; we are more than the sum of our parts. We are wanted. We are loved.
Believing we are loved is hard; it can seem seductively easy to accept, on an almost unconscious level, the idea that our partners perpetually have one foot out the door, that we must force, cajole, bribe, or police them into staying with us. And, should a partner choose to leave, we can tend to double down…it happened because we didn’t force, cajole, bribe, or police them enough. If only we’d enforced the rules more strictly, they would have stayed.
I would like to propose the radical idea that believing we are loved and cherished is the assumption that underlies nearly all successful relationships. I would also like to challenge everyone who reads these words to put this idea to the test. I am, after all, an empiricist. Let’s build relationships predicated on the notion that we don’t have to make our partners stay with us; we merely need to accept that we are cherished, and cherish those around us in return, and our partners will want to stay with us.
Who’s with me?
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