Some time ago, I wrote about dating black belts. I prefer to date people who have already demonstrated the skills required to treat others well in a relationship–that is, people who are black belts at relationships.

It’s a common misconception among folks who’ve never done any martial arts that a person with a black belt has mastered the techniques of his discipline. That’s not true; in fact, a black belt merely shows you’ve got a handle on the basics, and are now ready to start learning the more advanced stuff.

What does it mean to have a handle on the basics? In that post, I tried to make a list of specific relationship attitudes and skills that show a good foundation in how to behave reasonably toward other folks.

Being a black belt doesn’t mean someone is perfect, nor that they know everything there is to know. If you have a black belt at bicycling, it doesn’t mean you can do a triple back spin in a half pipe; it means you can ride the bike without falling over, you know the rules of the road, you can deal with it if someone unexpectedly jumps out in front of you.

A black belt still makes mistakes. The difference between the mistakes made by a beginning student of a martial art and the mistakes made by a black belt is that the mistakes made by a student tend to be simple, easily recognized and easily corrected, but the mistakes made by a black belt can be subtle and difficult to correct.

The same can be true of relationships. Longevity in a relationship does not necessarily prove mastery of relationship skills; in a healthy, dynamic relationship, there is always more to be learned. And sometimes, mistakes made in an established, long-term relationship can have deep roots and subtle consequences.

Non-monogamous relationships are complex animals. Polyamorous relationships require care and feeding, and as with any relationship, mistakes are inevitable. Some of these mistakes can be very subtle indeed.

Poly mythology

Every subculture creates its own mythology. It is shared ideas and a commonality of interest which define a subculture, so it’s no surprise that subcultures give rise to their own set of mythologies; and the poly community is no exception. We sometimes like to make fun of the “monogamous fairy tale,” yet there are polyamorous fairy tales too.

One of the myths that seems on the road to becoming entrenched in some quarters of the polyamorous community is the idea that polyamory represents a state of “spiritual enlightenment” beyond that of mere monogamy. Monogamy, or so the idea goes, is the unfortunate result of a benighted culture enforcing a tradition of patriarchal oppression and property values. Polyamory is for people who have broken free of these artificial constraints and reached a deeper level of human understanding, one free of petty jealousy and possessiveness.

It’s easy to see why this myth is seductive. People who choose to live in polyamorous families are met with a great deal of resistance; to be polyamorous in the face of a non-stop barrage of cultural values that reinforce the Prince Charming metaphor requires a strong sense of self-identity (and no small measure of courage). Often, people are driven to polyamory because they are fundamentally incapable of being happy in a monogamous relationship. When you’ve been inculcated by values that contradict your own sense of self, and you finally gather the energy to break free of those values and live your life on your own terms, it can become easy to believe that you have transcended some petty and outmoded idea and discovered the key to enlightenment.

But this myth breaks down quickly. It’s not reasonable to assume that the number of lovers a person has is the measure of that person’s enlightenment; if that were the case, rock musicians might have us all beat! The measure of a person’s compassion lies in how she treats the people she loves, not in how many of those people there are. And polyamory represents a system that is not right for everyone, just like monogamy. It’s easy to imagine that if we lived in a culture steeped in polyamory, the mavericks who chose to buck the trend and carve out monogamous lives for themselves might also believe they have discovered the key to enlightenment!

Polyamory and monogamy represent two different relationship models, nothing more. There is absolutely nothing intrinsic to polyamory that makes it better than monogamy, and there is nothing that makes monogamy automatically better than polyamory. There are wise, compassionate, enlightened people who are monogamous; and there are selfish, crass, inconsiderate louts who are polyamorous. Neither relationship model has yet to corner the market on wisdom or spiritual enlightenment.

A related myth is the idea that polyamory represents an “ideal” or “natural” state of man, and everyone would be poly if only it weren’t for social conditioning. People are inculcated with monogamous values and ideals from a very early age; the myth says that without this conditioning, which traces its roots back to social constructs designed to ensure parentage and establish conventions for property ownership and inheritance, people would tend to be polyamorous.

It’s true that we live in a culture steeped on monogamous values, and that these values are reinforced from a very early age. But there’s no reason to believe that without this conditioning, all people, or even most people, would be polyamorous. Monogamous ideals serve the needs of a great many people quite well. Human beings are a varied bunch. There’s no single philosophy or way of life that works for everyone. In a polyamorous society, it’s quite likely that someone would write a book extolling the virtues of the maverick idea of monogamy! A society works best when it allows its members the freedom to determine what works best for them.

Another common myth in the polyamorous community is the idea that love is limitless. It just ain’t so. Human beings are not capable of forming intimate, meaningful emotional bonds with limitless numbers of people; even if time and energy allowed, we simply do not have the emotional resources for it. We’re hard-put just to remember the names of, say, six hundred other people; to think that we could not only remember but actually form close, romantic ties with six hundred other people seems a bit of a stretch.

How, then, could we love six thousand other people? Or sixty thousand? Six hundred million, perhaps? Six billion? After a while, our capacity to form a personal connection with other people becomes exhausted.

In fact, the number of close, intimate emotional ties we can form may be determined at least in part by our biological inheritance.

And really, it doesn’t even matter whether or not love is infinite; even if it were, time and energy certainly are not. The number of meaningful personal relationships an individual can sustain must necessarily be limited by time and energy. A relationship will wither without care and attention, and there are only so many hours in a day. Practically speaking, then, the number of people that one can love in any meaningful way is always bounded.

Doubling down

There will be problems in any poly relationship. There are problems in any relationship at all. None of us is perfect.

But in polyamory, we can be vulnerable to trying to map out exactly what we want our relationship to look like. It’s hard, sometimes, to let go of our assumptions about how relationships work; we can try to want to deal with our fears by controlling the outcomes of our relationships, and try to control the outcomes by controlling our partners, the structures of our relationships, or both.

When we run into problems–and we will–we can be tempted to respond by doubling down on the rules. A relationship broke up? We felt jealous or threatened? The problem was there weren’t enough rules, or they weren’t strict enough! Someone has done something that hurt us? We need more controls on the form our relationship can take! When we step back and look at it, doubling down on structures that haven’t succeeded in taking us where we want to go sounds silly…but in the middle of dealing with crisis or pain, doubling down can seem like a reasonable thing to do.


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