Poly/Mono Dialog

Transcript of a conversation

The following is a real dialog between a person who self-identifies as monogamous but whose partner is polyamorous, and me. The monogamous person in this dialog was attempting to understand the philosophy of polyamory, and I believe this exchange offers insight into both polyamorous and monogamous worldviews.

While there might not be any definitive answers to making a mono/poly relationship work in here, I think this dialog is valuable in offering perspective to both monogamous and polyamorous people.

Her part of the conversation is in blue; mine, in green. Names and other personally identifiable information have been omitted at her request.

My boyfriend has sprung the poly issue on me, and I think I’m a hardwired mono. It’s incredibly painful. I ask myself how on earth to cope? Your general suggestions are sensible, but what if the whole concept of poly makes you want to shrivel up and die? What if having another person forced into your relationship makes you feel raped, because you didn’t choose to share this special part of your life with that third person? What do you do when your primary barely has time for you, and now he wants to divide his attention between you and someone else? What do you do when your partner tells you he’s suffocating and it’s either accept his being poly or get dumped? What do you do when your partner tells you he’s got a crush on someone and he feels like throwing away everything he has with you because, hey, that’s feelings?

This might sound surprising coming from a person who is polyamorous and who does believe that poly/mono relationships can work, but…

If the idea of a polyamorous relationship makes you feel that unhappy, have you considered that you might be happier in a different relationship? There’s nothing wrong with seeking a relationship with a partner who feels the same way you do about relationships, and who shares with you an idea about what he wants.

You are responsible for your own happiness. If you are not happy in your relationship, and it looks as though the relationship doesn’t give you what you want, what value do you gain by staying? Is the pain of being in a relationship that can’t give you the things you need worth the pain of leaving it?

I don’t know if asking how to “cope” is really the right question. If a poly relationship is to make you happy, then it has to be something you don’t just cope with; it has to be something that you embrace, something that can give you joy. To do that requires making changes in yourself.

I would like more explanation of what the poly mindset is like, because to mono people it is so hard to understand.

For example, as a mono person, when I say “I love you”, it means in addition to tenderness and chemistry, I think we’re a team, and I’ll always be there for you when you really need me, and in a crisis, if I have to make a choice, you will always be my first priority. It means I will try to make you happy and to avoid hurting you, even at considerable inconvenience or discomfort to myself (just don’t abuse that willingness); and it means I expect you’ll do the same for me. It means we’ll have separate interests, and spend a lot of time apart doing our own stuff, but we are making a commitment to build significant portions of our lives around us, as a couple, and that can include big-ticket things like kids or financial decisions.

It means you’re my best friend, the person I turn to to discuss the hard questions, the person I’m not afraid to talk about anything with, because I know you won’t talk about it with anyone else. You’re the person I let deepest into my private sphere, into areas that normally other people have no business being in, and I ‘m the one you let deepest into your private sphere, and by overlapping something that is intensely private and intrinsic to the self, we gain an intensely warm and supportive partnership in life; but I can only let you in that far if I can be sure that you won’t take anything that belongs in that intensely private sphere and share it with strangers.

I wonder, sometimes, if it’s possible for a person hard-wired for monogamy to understand what it’s like to be wired for polyamory, and vice versa.

For many, though not all, polyamorous people, love means very much these same things.

There are actually at least two radically different approaches to polyamory I’ve seen. One approach, which is the one I take, is that polyamory is about forging close, intimate, long-term relationships—about building family. A person with an inclusive model of polyamory would agree with everything you’ve written, with the addition that a partnership can include more than two people.

The other common model is the “free agent” model. A free agent tends to see polyamory as an antidote to being controlled; such a person often behaves as if he or she is single, and does not often stop to consider the impact of his or her choices on his or her partners. To such a person, the idea of a partnership like you’ve described may be seen as stifling or controlling.

I don’t want any other romantic partners—not only because everyone else seems somehow uninteresting compared with my partner, but because no matter how attractive I find multiple people and no matter how much I feel affection for other people, it isn’t possible for me to be that close and committed to two different people at the same time—not emotionally and not practically, in terms of time and attention.

That, right there, is probably the key difference between someone monogamous and someone polyamorous—a polyamorous person does feel that he is able to let more than one person that close, and to become that emotionally intimate with more than one person. (And to be fair, most monogamous people do not really believe they can only be this intimate with one person, but rather that they can be this intimate with only one person at a time—there’s a difference…)

Of course, most of the “free agent’ polyamorists I’ve met don’t want or value this level of emotional intimacy.

If I were to have secondary lovers with shallower relationships, there would always be a major risk that I’d let something slip that was private to my primary partner and me and that that third person had no business knowing or being involved in.

Personally, I don’t make distinctions between “primary” and “secondary” relationships, at least in the sense that I would never tell someone “You are a secondary partner.” I offer emotional intimacy to all my partners, if they want it.

I wonder, though, what kinds of things you see as being this private. I tend to share myself with my partners entirely, and not hold things as private from them; that doesn’t mean I gossip about each of my partners with each other partner, but it does mean that they can all see the private sides of me if they choose to. Can you elaborate a little more about the privacy issues you see?

I’m a person with quite extensive and clearly defined levels of private space; and I have a need to keep some things entirely to myself, or restrict access to some things to only a very few intimate people. I think it’s similar to the way many people need time to be alone (which I totally do not grasp, emotionally, since for me internal privacy is enough; but I respect that other people need to be physically alone from time to time). I’m sure that many of the things I consider private are things you readily share with others; in fact, it sounds to me like polyamory may correlate with a low formality score on the Myers-Briggs type indicators. I’m between ENTP and INTP, for the record. ?

That’s not necessarily true. I’m a Myers-Briggs ENTP, but my live-in partner is a J, and I know poly folk at the extremes of every Myers-Briggs archetype.

More significant, I think, is why you feel the need to maintain this privacy. How would you complete the sentence “I need to keep these things private because _______,” and more importantly, why? Is it from a need to maintain security, or a fear of being vulnerable? Something else entirely?

Uh, how to explain the need for privacy? I’d sort of assumed that everyone has a need for it at some level, and that it was only a question of how much one felt one needed to keep private, which varied by individual. I guess I feel a need to keep these things private because I’ve found that anything that gets shared outside your own head is likely to be spread everywhere, and the less emotionally close are the people you share information with, the greater the chances that the information will rapidly become public knowledge, because people who are not very close to you have no particular commitment to respect your wish to keep it private.

That sounds a bit like saying “I need privacy because I need things kept private”—a bit of a tautology. ?

Okay. Why do I have such a broad need for privacy? Well, I guess in the case of a lover my partner has chosen without my consent, or a lover that I don’t particularly like or welcome, then I feel that she is essentially a stranger and cannot be trusted, and moreover I do not want her to be part of my family and to share my home life, which is the part of my life I share with my man. Particularly not if I feel that she has values that clash with mine, or I think that she is the kind of person I would never make friends with on my own, or would actively seek to avoid.

I would say that such a person would not be a good partner for your partner. Generally speaking, I tend to see value in choosing partners who share enough in common to be able to get along.

Here’s an example of stuff I consider private: if I’m Ms Self-Confident, Competent Consultant to the world at large, I do NOT want my partner reassuring one of his lovers that she doesn’t need to be intimidated by me because in private life I’m actually very soft and feminine. It’s none of her damn business what I’m like in private life. She may be my man’s lover, but to me she’s a stranger.

I don’t want such a person to know that at home I’m soft and feminine for two reasons. First, I don’t want her to manipulate me using the knowledge that I have that side, or to expect that I’m going to treat her that way. Excluding her from my circle of family and friends is how I react when a person I don’t particularly like is forcefully inserted into my life. The second reason is that I do not expect that she will keep this information private. I expect that it will soon become public knowledge that I’m a big softie at home. That is not going to enhance my relationship with my clients and colleagues, who need me to be a certain way and who have trouble imagining that women can really be like that. Most people are not capable of accepting that people can be both A and B, when they think of A and B as opposites. How can I be really competent and rational at work, particularly when we’ve got a crisis on our hands, if I’m more traditionally feminine at home? It would just show that at heart I’m a typical femme and “not to be trusted.” This is kind of a lame example; but there are other things that would cause more of an uproar among clients and colleagues—not the least of them that my man is poly.

Well, that’s not necessarily true; there’s no reason she must be a stranger to you. But assuming she is: how would you complete the sentence “I don’t want her to know I’m soft and feminine because _____”? (Other than “it’s none of her business,” that is, which is an answer that doesn’t really explore the why.)

Because I didn’t invite her into my life, and I don’t want any non-public details of my life shared with her, not even whether I color my hair or how I feel about my latest competition results. It’s none of her business. Even supposing, as a hypothetical case, that my man chose a very close friend of mine for a lover, so that I would actually have a pre-existing relationship with her, and wouldn’t mind so much sharing a piece of my man; even in that case, there are things that I would share with my man, as my husband/boyfriend, but not with her, as a friend. That might include, for example, if she wonders why my man isn’t interested much in sex, I don’t want him telling her it’s because I’m trying to get pregnant and he’s used up his reserves on that front.

Interesting example, because that’s exactly the sort of information I DO think that, as a part of your family, she should know.

Even if she is not part of your family, and the relationships are kept separate, this is still something that she should know.

Why? Because it affects her. Because if you do become pregnant, it is reasonable to expect that pregnancy and raising a child will have an effect on the amount of time and resources he has available to spend with her. Because it affects the kind and degree of sexual activity that may be possible with her. Because it has implications for the kind of commitments he may be able to make to her. Because in addition to being a significant part of your life, having a child is a significant part of his life as well, and emotional intimacy is founded in part on sharing the parts of your life that are important to you.

It’s none of her business.

I disagree; in this case, if she is involved with him, and it’s important to him, it is her business. It may not be her choice, and she may not have any say in whether or not the two of you choose to have a child together…but it undeniably affects her.

But the fact that I think she’s NOT part of my family and I’m not emotionally intimate with her, means that from my point of view this is something she actively should NOT know. I need her not to know it. From my viewpoint, the fact that she’s intimate with my man doesn’t give her the right to be intimate with me and to know things about me that are private. The fact that these things affect her is her problem. She chose to enter a relationship where she was not wanted by some of the partners. Yet, from her standpoint, it’s something she should know. So whose priorities win out here? See why I want to be top dog? ?

I still don’t fully understand why you don’t want her to know things about you; it seems as if you are starting from the premise that you will always and automatically be hostile to any such person, and she to you, and then using this to explain why the relationship will be hostile. To me, it seems that this assumption is likely to become self-fulfilling.

Well, here’s another example. If my man is tired and cranky, I don’t want him telling her it’s because we had a late-night argument about subject X, and I certainly don’t want him talking over the details of our argument with her and getting her opinion on it. Again, my disagreements with my man are private and none of her business.

That seems reasonable, though I am personally a lot less concerned with keeping arguments private. To me, an argument takes place because a problem exists in a relationship; the person I am arguing with is not my adversary, because we both have the same goal—to make a relationship that makes us both happy. The goal of the argument is not to win over the other person, it’s to solve the problem. One of the advantages of polyamory is that sometimes it puts more eyes on a problem, which can sometimes makes the problem easier to solve. But I recognize that arguments are emotionally very sensitive, and you might not want to “air your dirty laundry” in front of someone else, or have the details of an argument discussed outside your relationship.

Another thing I don’t want is him asking her for advice on what to buy me for our anniversary (his romantic presents to me are special between him and me) or god forbid, how to please me better in bed (that’s for him and me to explore together, and is REALLY none of her business). I don’t want him sharing information about past traumatic events in my life or problems I’m facing that I may not have shared with her. I don’t want him telling her that I got a nice fat bonus when I know that she’s struggling financially and that this might make her feel bad. Etc etc.

To be fair, people are very “leaky,” and communicate far more to those around them then they are perhaps aware of. Anyone who knows how to read the cues can probably learn far more about you than you might be comfortable with, romantic relationships involving your partner aside.

Still, that does bring up a question I’m curious about. People absorb ideas and information, all the time, from their environment. Does it really matter to you that much what the source of an idea is? Is there actually a difference between your partner discovering something he’d like to try in bed with you from another partner, or discovering that idea through a conversation with a buddy at work, or from a magazine, or because he just saw the movie “Secretary” and thought it was really hot? Is the source of an idea more offensive to you if it is another partner, and not one of these other things? Does it matter if he got an idea for an anniversary gift from a TV ad or from a display in the jewelry store rather than if he got that idea from another partner? Ultimately, in the end, he’s going to evaluate that idea and make a decision based on his relationship with you and his knowledge of you; does the idea have less value if it came from another partner rather than from a TV ad?

Yes, it matters. A TV ad is impersonal. If my man gets an idea from there, it’s essentially his idea. If he and another person cook up the idea between them, then it’s a gift or idea from both of them, even though he may be the one to give it to me. It is no longer a symbol of our special relationship, it’s a multi-person gift. That’s fine if I like the other person and if it’s a neutral event like a birthday; it’s not OK if it’s an occasion like an anniversary that is meant to celebrate our special, personal relationship. And it’s not OK if it’s someone I don’t like. I don’t accept gifts from people I dislike, unless there is some overwhelming social obligation to do so. Certainly I don’t enjoy such gifts, which to me are not important for their own sakes (I can buy something if I want it) but rather because they remind me of the giver. Similarly, if he gets an idea about how to please me in bed by silently ruminating in his own mind about it, and observing what he does with the other woman, OK. It’s his idea. If he ASKS her about it, and they decide together what I might like, then next time he tries out the new thing, suddenly I’m not sleeping with just him—I’m sleeping with both of them. She just entered my sexual life. YUCK! And it’s inappropriate, given that she’s not family and I don’t want her sharing my private life at all.

I really don’t quite grasp how a person can have a poly relationship, especially one with multiple deeply committed relationships, and avoid this kind of cross-relationship information leakage, though. If you’re having trouble with partner X, don’t you have an urge to seek solace and advice from partner Y? Isn’t it tempting to share all the parts of your life with all of your partners, and to share information that’s really interesting and important, such as the attempt to get pregnant, even though that is intensely private to partner X?

Certainly. And I think that for many polyamorous people these things are not intensely private. Polyamorous people, almost by definition, crave multiple romantic relationships, and for many people, sharing and intimacy are an important part of romantic relationships; it’s not hard to conclude that many polyamorous people, myself included, like sharing these things with more than one person.

And if you are really discreet, how do you build a really deep relationship with each partner, when so much of your life is confidential and off-limits to discussion?

Oftentimes, you don’t.

Not everyone, of course, sees this kind of sharing as a necessary part of a relationship; but many people, including me, do.

Life is sooooo much simpler as a mono…sigh.

Simplicity is in the eye of the beholder. For me, monogamy seems terribly complicated, and fraught with secrets and unexpected land mines. ?

Would it matter if you feel that you did have a choice in your partner’s other partner?

Here’s another problem I see with polyamory. Let’s say I had other secondary partners. There would always be the risk that one of those secondary partners would over time come to displace you as my number one, and I’m not willing to hurt you like that.

Hmm. Why is that hurtful? I am personally of the idea that a person can have more than one primary partner, and I don’t see any contradiction there. But I also don’t see any pain in not being my partner’s “#1”.

I really don’t understand how anyone could NOT want to be #1 with their cherished partner, and I’ll tell you why (maybe you can explain the poly perspective a little more?):

The reason that I as a mono couldn’t deal with not being top dog is partly emotional—I am making this other person my top dog, in fact my only dog, and while I might understand that he has some strange (to me) hard-wired inability to restrain himself from acting on his crushes for my sake, I at least would expect him to compromise with my mono outlook to the extent of putting me first.

I also need to be top dog because I need to know that if push comes to shove, and there’s a serious conflict of interest between me and another partner, he’s going to do what’s best for me, not her. Otherwise, where is the Commitment, capital C? Commitment, to me as a mono, doesn’t just mean that you’re going to share some unspecified part of your life with me, maybe larger or maybe smaller, and maybe fluctuating over time. It means that you’re going to stand by me, period, and no one else’s interests will come before mine, except possibly our children’s.

Mmm. Already I see some conceptual difficulties developing here.

I do not believe a polyamorous person is a person who has an inability to restrain himself from acting on his crushes. Not at all. In fact, responsible polyamorous people consider very carefully the consequences and implications of acting on their feelings before they do so; in that way, I don’t think there’s any difference between a responsible polyamorous person and a responsible monogamous person. Certainly I have never felt that I have an inability to act on my crushes; indeed, I can and often do choose not to act on my crushes.

It’s interesting that you mention children, because it demonstrates that there is a situation where you can see that putting someone else’s needs first—namely, putting your children’s needs first—does not automatically imply that there can be no commitment between you and your partner.

And in fact it seems to me that often, monogamous couples do consider the needs of their children first, and that this in no way means the couple is not committed to each other.

I believe that multiple commitments, and multiple commitments with a capital C, are possible. For example, a couple can be committed to their children, even if they have two, and committed to meeting the needs of those children even if it should come to pass that both children need something at the same time.

Well…I think the key thing is, the kids generally come before anything else, if push comes to shove (like who gets rescued first from the proverbial burning house), because they are the future. The commitment to multiple kids works mainly because the kids also have a commitment to each other.

You can afford to miss Bob’s birthday and attend Alan’s graduation instead because Bob cares about Alan’s happiness, too. This isn’t, I think, necessarily the case between all the partners in a poly relationship, especially if one of the partners is actually mono and not happy to be sharing at all, never mind interested in the welfare of all the other “intruders.”

In my experience, that’s one of the things that makes long-term, emotionally intimate polyamorous relationships work—that sense of commitment.

When my partner begins investing in a romantic relationship with another person, I don’t feel that this person is forced on me; I think a large part of that is trusting that if for some reason we don’t get along early on, she will honor her relationship with me by backing off from exploring a relationship with that other person. I trust her to make decisions that respect my needs and respect our relationship, so I don’t have any sort of feeling that she is doing something “to” me.

And that gives me the ability to reach out to her other partner, and establish a friendship of my own with that person. By doing that, I have developed some friendships that are very valuable to me. For me, a partner’s partner can be a source of joy; in a way, it’s like getting two friends for the price of one. ?

I think part of the problem begins with seeing any potential new person as an “intruder.”

If you do feel powerless over your partner’s behavior, or feel that you have no voice in your partner’s decisions, or if you feel your partner will not honor and respect your relationship in the choices that he makes, then I can see where this feeling comes from. I’ve felt it myself, in situations where I felt a partner wasn’t particularly interested in the effect that her decisions had on me, or wasn’t considering our relationship when she decided to pursue new ones.

What I’ve found, though, is that having a sense that my relationship is a priority to my partner, that I can trust her not to pursue things which would be harmful or destructive to me, enables me to look at her other partners without feeling that they are unwelcome intruders. Having that feeling makes all the difference in the world, really.

I see polyamory at best be like a family comprised of various step-kids who have no particular love for each other. Very tricky to balance. I take your point about the approach of trying to pick partners who can be friends with your existing partners, though. I’ll pass that on to my man. It would be quite a different thing to be asked to share with someone I liked, respected and trusted, rather than having some random person forced into my “family” that I would never want to associate with on my own.

Indeed. It makes a difference that is very difficult to overstate.

I do realize that a relationship between a parent and a child is not the same as the relationship between two lovers, but at the same time, I think they both show that commitment to more than one person is possible.

You do make a good point that a serious conflict between you and your partner’s other partner can create a situation where it is virtually impossible for him to be committed to both of you. There are a few different approaches that people can take to deal with that kind of situation, the most common of which I’ve seen is to create a hierarchy of relationship, with a single “primary” relationship taking precedence over all “secondary” relationships.

There are a couple of drawbacks to this approach, in my experience. The first is that it is not always possible to impose some form onto a relationship in advance. When you set out to tell your relationships what they can be, before you’ve even begun them…well, if it works, coincidence has entered the picture. Relationships can and often do grow in unexpected ways, and people are not always good at predicting what makes them happy.

Another is that the person who is placed in the secondary position may find that he begins to resent the relationship, if it does not offer what he needs; at that point he can become trapped, not wanting to face the pain of leaving the relationship but also not being satisfied by the relationship. At the same time, as the primary partner, it’s hard for a person to feel really secure, because that security comes from being #1, and being #1 is only possible for so long as his partner chooses to make it possible. If a person makes an agreement to hold another person as #1, it’s only going to last for so long as he holds to that agreement.

I’m not saying that primary/secondary can’t work, mind you. There are plenty of people who are perfectly content in a secondary relationship, and don’t particularly want or need more. But it’s not always possible to tell in advance whether or not that will be the course a relationship takes.

Another way that people sometimes deal with the potential for conflict between partners is to keep all their partners at arm’s length, not really making big-C commitments with any of them and keeping all the relationships relatively light. I know many poly folk who do this, though to me it seems to defeat the point of having romantic relationships in the first place. For me, there is great joy in intimacy, in commitment, in close and entwined intentional family; I do not believe I could find that joy if all my relationships were casual or more distant.

A third approach is to choose partners carefully, and to choose not to pursue relationships in cases where there are conflicts with existing partners. This is what I strive to do. Ultimately, I love my partners; I care about them and I want to take care of them and to do what I can to help them be happy. If I meet a new person, and I begin to develop romantic feelings for that person and to explore a relationship with that person, this new relationship develops in stages; it’s not a matter of “Oh, honey, I just met this person, and she’s a primary partner now.” As the relationship develops, if it becomes clear that conflicts with my existing partners are likely, or if this new person demonstrates that the relationship will not be compatible with and complementary to my existing relationships, then I can choose not to pursue that relationship any more.

My partners all know each other, and my partners have established connections of their own independent of me. That’s a very important part of making sure the kinds of conflicts you talk about don’t happen. In fact, I have had relationships in which a new partner gets along very poorly with an existing partner, and creates conflict and strife; and I chose not to pursue those relationships any more.

Security for me comes not from being #1, whatever that means; but rather from trusting that I do care about my partner’s happiness, I am committed to seeing those relationships grow in ways that enrich everyone’s lives, and I am not going to pursue new partnerships that are destructive to my existing partners.

The defining difference between a connection I choose to explore and one I do not is often how it will affect the partners I already have, and whether this new relationship will help strengthen or undermine my existing relationships.

The connections between the partners I have now stand on their own. If I were suddenly to be struck by a bus or teleported off to some distant planet, my current partners would still be part of one another’s lives, because they have developed friendships that do not depend on me. This goes a long way toward making sure that conflict is not destructive, without seeking to maintain an artificial distinction between who’s on top and who’s underneath.

I have trouble understanding the idea of “commitment” in a poly relationship. If you’re not going to promise to stand by me and put my interests first in a crunch, there isn’t any Commitment, capital C, and therefore there isn’t any relationship, by definition, in my view as a mono. All we are is lovers, or friends with benefits, not spouses or even boyfriend/girlfriend. (This only works, obviously, if you don’t abuse my commitment by demanding more than I can give or demanding things that harm me; and as you say, although one can promise, life is life and there are never any ultimate guarantees. But there are promises made and honored to the best of one’s abilities.)

To me, the commitment is in promising to stand by my partner and make her interests a priority, not necessarily to stand by her and put her commitments “first.” And as you’ve already said, this is true even in a traditional monogamous relationship, where sometimes people must put their children’s interests first.

I need to be top dog because my partner’s time and attention are limited and I know he has no limit to the number of crushes he can develop, and I know that he’ll want to pursue them all, and I know that if he actually does pursue any small number of them (as seems likely), then at some point he’ll run out of time and energy and someone will get displaced, or at least come out on the short end of the stick in terms of time and attention.

All very true. Love may not be limited, but time and attention surely are.

It’s not necessarily true, though, that this means you must suffer because of it. Presumably, you do not get 100% of your partner’s time and attention right now; so having less than the full amount of your partner’s time and attention is obviously acceptable to you. (In fact, I think it’s healthy; it’s hard to imagine a relationship in which each partner spends 100% of his time and attention on the other partner that isn’t dysfunctional.)

It’s important to realize, too, that being monogamous does not mean you aren’t sharing his time and attention. I have a friend who is currently caring for her ailing mother, something that she invests time and attention in. Quite likely, more time and attention than she might invest in another partner. If your partner has to care for a sick or injured relative, or has to take care of his parents, are you not then sharing his time and attention with them? Is that different to you than sharing his time and attention with another partner? If so, why?

It’s totally different because his mom, say, in that case is sick or ill, and taking care of her is a duty that cannot be ethically avoided (in fact, it’s sort of an opportunity to give back for all the years she spent lavishing attention on him when he needed it, and it is a duty that is undertaken with love and willingness). In the case of another partner, though, the drain on the attention he is giving me is completely voluntary. He’s choosing to take some time away from me and to give it to someone else. To the extent that I have no friendship or commitment to that other person, and to the extent that the amount of time he takes from me damages my relationship with him, I’m not going to be a happy camper.

But is not the same thing true if this time and attention is a romantic relationship? Does the reason behind some loss of time and attention matter more than the fact that you’ve lost the time and attention?

It’s like trying to share your marriage with a particularly needy and demanding mother or mother-in-law, which is also not a situation I would be very happy about. Regarding time and attention (as opposed to my fundamental don’t want to share mono attitude), it’s not dog-in-the-manger, it’s more that both my man and I have such full schedules that we barely have enough time for each other now. If he decided to take some of that precious time away and spend it elsewhere, I question how long our relationship would remain intimate. You have to spend some minimum amount of time with each other, or the relationship withers.

One of the advantages of close, committed, family-oriented polyamory is that it is far easier to spend time and attention on all of your partners when they are in close proximity and get along well. And generally, I think in any relationship, monogamous or polyamorous, it’s more constructive to tell your partner what you need in terms that stand on their own, rather than in relative terms; “I need more time from you” is better than “I need you to spend less time at work” or “I need you to spend less time on your model trains” or “I need you to spend less time with Lisa.”

I see your point, but I also logically think that “I need more time from you” means, logically, that time will have to be taken from somewhere else, and 20 guesses from where.

I see on your website that you recommend all the partners spending time together, which I could see would be a great solution if everyone were poly and also if everyone were getting the full minimum amount of totally private time they needed to maintain the relationship. Not sure if it would work for a mono, because of the fundamental unhappiness with the whole concept of sharing. We monos might need whatever time we do get with our man to be OUR time, alone.

It’s been my experience that time and attention spent with a new partner usually comes first form time and attention spent on my other hobbies and interests, not from time and attention spent with my existing partner.

But yes, in the end, there is only so much time and attention to go around. This is another reason to choose carefully the relationships you invest in, rather than pursuing every crush that comes along. A person has only so much time; the way he spends that time should be chosen wisely.

This is the real rub and the real mono objection to poly relationships, aside from basic sexual jealousy. At some point, unless you work on it, an old relationship becomes routine and becomes less important than your hobbies, your interests, and especially your new infatuations. Mono people make the decision that they’ll protect themselves from the temptation to casually jettison an old relationship by simply avoiding new relationships. If you’re poly, doesn’t the risk rise that an old relationship seems like the most boring, most expendable thing on the menu when you’re faced with a choice of how to allocate scarce time and attention? Particularly when the other relationship(s) in your life are in the rush/infatuation stage?

For me, no.

I gather that for many poly people that’s exactly what happens, although you personally make choices that ensure it doesn’t. Seems like this may or may not be a justified fear depending on what kind of person my man turns out to be.


In the poly community, we spend a lot of time talking about “new relationship energy,” that giddy, exciting rush that accompanies a new relationship. Sometimes, NRE can take focus away from everything—not just from existing relationships, but from work, from hobbies, from eating and sleeping…

I’m not going to try to pretend this isn’t a problem. I’ve known people who seem to identify as polyamorous at least in part because they love that new relationship rush, and who are constantly starting new relationships.

I don’t especially like new relationship energy. I think of it as an unpleasant distraction, and I want to get through it as quickly as possible. The problem with new relationship energy isn’t that it takes my attention from existing relationships—it doesn’t—but rather that it prevents me from really seeing my new partner exactly as she is. The intensity of NRE means that it’s hard for me to really get to know my partner, to really understand her and build intimacy with her; when you’re feeling that giddy rush, it’s a very natural human tendency to project your own desires and your own ideas onto that person. For me, getting past that and really getting to know my partner lets me get to the good stuff.

But then, many of the things people find uninteresting about a long-term relationship—the familiarity, the casual intertwinement, stuff like that—are what I want the most. I love that kind of relationship; it’s where the good stuff is!

I want some kind of promise that if someone does become less important, it isn’t going to be me —if someone has to suffer for his inability to control his crushes, let it be one of the women who intruded on my relationship and knew from the start that this man was poly. I didn’t do anything to deserve being treated like a car or a casino chip, valued while you have it, but easily traded in, which is what secondary or even co-primary status sounds like to me as a mono.

Can’t argue with you there. I do know polyamorous people who do sometimes seem to treat their partners as expendable. Indeed, I once knew a married couple who were nominally polyamorous; the wife had an additional girlfriend, though the husband had no other partner. One day, it came to pass that the husband did find another partner—and the wife immediately found herself jealous and confrontational, and did not like sharing her husband with this new woman one bit. Finally, she approached her husband and demanded that he end his relationship, and told him “If you get rid of your girlfriend, I’ll get rid of my girlfriend too so it’ll be fair.”

Needless to say, there was nothing “fair” about this. In the end, a relationship of many years was no more than a bargaining chip, to be discarded when it brought some perceived gain. This is, in my opinion, not an ethical or compassionate way to practice polyamory.

I don’t want to be a bargaining chip, and I don’t want my partners to be bargaining chips. I don’t think, though, that being a co-primary necessarily means that my partner must feel that way. If I have chosen my partners wisely, there is no need to trade one for the other; each is unique, neither can take the other person’s place, and neither wants to take the other person’s place.

I know this sounds like a very unpleasant and unhealthy sort of attitude to take, but then I think that asking a mono to actually take pleasure in a poly relationship may be asking too much.

There’s the rub; ultimately, a mono/poly relationship is a polyamorous relationship. No matter what structures you impose on it, it’s still, by its nature, a polyamorous relationship. A monogamous person who can’t be happy in such a relationship is perfectly reasonable, and is probably wise, to say “I do not want this.”

Asking a monogamous person to be happy in a polyamorous relationship is asking a lot, there’s no doubt about it. But asking a monogamous person to participate in a relationship that does not make him happy, and cannot make him happy, is asking even more. If two people love each other, but one cannot be happy in a polyamorous relationship and the other cannot be happy in a monogamous relationship, then it’s reasonable to consider that perhaps that relationship cannot serve either person’s needs, and that maybe it’s not the right relationship for either of them.

If the monogamous person can’t be happy in a poly relationship, then all you can really expect is that the mono person will still love you and will do her best to adapt to the situation, with humor, goodwill and as much tolerance as she can muster. Still, I think that for me as a mono, a lot of the bad feelings would go away if I could be sure that my poly partner is going to make me, so to speak, Wife #1. It’s not as good as being the Only Wife, but it could be liveable if I can work through my jealousy; and I don’t want him to suffer in our relationship, either, ergo compromise on both our parts. If he doesn’t want to have a hierarchy among his poly partners, fine, but I’m not a poly partner, I’m his mono partner, and I need it.

I think you would likely find that being granted the position of Wife #1 might not give you the sense of security or commitment you’re looking for. It’s definitely been my experience that structural terms or rules in a relationship do not actually address emotional responses. What sometimes happens, for example, is that if your sense of security and safety in the relationship rests on your partner making you #1, then you can’t really relax or feel completely secure, because just as easily as he agrees to make you #1, he can change that agreement. Security that rests on factors outside yourself and outside your control isn’t really security.

Worse, there is often a long-term, indirect, and subtle consequence to this kind of structure that isn’t intuitively obvious at all.

If your partner invests in another relationship, he is presumably building emotional intimacy and creating emotional vulnerability with another person. If he then loses that relationship, for any reason, it’s reasonable to expect that it will hurt.

And that’s the thing. It will hurt even if he agrees that it is necessary to end the relationship to honor his promise to make you #1. It will hurt even if he has explicitly agreed to the rules which give you the power to end his other relationships or to tell him to choose you over his other relationships.

When you do things that hurt your partner, even if you and he both agree to these things, you may damage your relationship. If this continues over time—if you hurt your partner over and over, even unintentionally, even if the hurt is a consequence of the things he has freely chosen to agree to—it will begin to damage your relationship with him. Ultimately, given enough time and enough hurt, you may find that it destroys your relationship…that your relationship is damaged beyond repair by the very things that were intended to protect it.

I take your point, but I think that we here in this country are into rules and “doing what we promised” enough that I would be quite capable of laying out ground rules and then ensuring that things stuck to those rules. If a secondary partner has it explained that that is what her relationship is, and all it ever will be, then she doesn’t complain if she finds later she wants the relationship to be more than that. She might mention that the situation has changed and see if the consensus is for changing the rules, but if anyone doesn’t agree, well, then the original agreement stands, and no one is outraged, because consensus and following through on promises comes before individual desires. In that case, she either lives with the pain of not getting primary status, or she ends the relationship.

My man might wish that I would feel comfortable altering the original agreement, but he would feel it absolutely within my rights, not to say expected, to insist that it remain unaltered. I guess I mean it wouldn’t really occur to us to say, well, I feel differently now, so you have to modify the rules to take account of that. (Incidentally, this kind of attitude is what would make being the official Wife #1 a much more secure position than it would with an American.) I think we in this country also have a greater capacity than Americans for accepting that some things in life are going to be painful, for absorbing that pain and moving on, without blaming anyone. Essentially, a “shit happens, deal with it” model of the world. I’m more or less in that camp, too. But I take your point that multiple hurts over time add up. If my man introduced ten new partners, it would be ten times more of a strain than one.

In other words, I envision a mono/poly relationship mostly working in the sense of the poly hinge maintaining two entirely different sets of family, sort of like someone who is married but has kids with an ex. One is his mono family, and one is his poly family, and different rules apply to the two, and the mono family gets priority in case of conflict, because that’s the sine qua non for the mono family to exist at all. What do you think? Is this asking too much of the poly partner, or does that depend on the person?

It definitely depends on the person, and on the people that person chooses to pursue relationships with. Can it work? Absolutely, provided the people who he chooses relationships with are okay with that, and are okay being in a secondary position indefinitely.

Will it work? That’s a whole ‘nother matter. It’s not always possible to tell in advance whether or not some person will find this acceptable; indeed, because relationships are complicated and unpredictable, he may approach a new partner who sincerely believes it will work, only to find as the relationship develops that, no, actually it doesn’t work at all. And then you end up in the position of using your position as #1 to make him end that relationship—which will probably hurt his other partner and will almost certainly hurt him as well.

And the more separate he keeps his relationships, the greater the difficulty in giving everyone his time and attention. When you and his other partner are both part of the same family, then on a strictly practical level it’s much easier for him to give you both time and attention; the more isolated and separated the relationships become, the harder it becomes to give both relationships time and attention without creating a situation where you and his other partner are competing for his resources.

I don’t understand why poly people want these relationships to begin with. From my perspective, I will be faithful to you, not only because I simply want to, but because my monogamy is a gift to you, a sign of my commitment to making our relationship work.

In contrast, I get the impression that when poly people say “I love you,” it means I’ll sleep with you and I’ll feel tenderness towards you, but don’t ask me to control my impulses to any great extent, and don’t expect the amount of sharing, partnership and overlap of private spheres that you would get in a mono relationship.

That may be true true of some “free agents,” but definitely not true of polyamorous people in general. And to be fair, there are monogamous people who are the same way…

I get the feeling that polys aren’t looking for partners in life, or don’t see life as something that is nicer if lived on the buddy system. They seem to be emotionally more or less self-sufficient, so that their love for a partner more closely resembles the kind of love a mother gives a child or a person gives their dog; it’s just the tenderness and wish for the other person to thrive, but it isn’t the wish for the two selves to overlap to some extent, and it isn’t the wish for someone to definitely be there for them through thick and thin. Is that true?

For some people, yes; for others, no.

I’ve known (and dated) poly folk who have this kind of approach to relationship, and I’ve learned that it isn’t what I want. I do want partners who are close, emotionally and practically; who share my life with me; and who are intertwined with me on a very deep level. I want life partners, not just people I sleep with.

And, frankly, it seems like that’s something of a minority view in the poly community. Not much of a minority, but a minority nonetheless; my own experiences have convinced me that the people who have a sort of casual approach to love, like you describe, do outnumber the people who want a deeper, more intimate and entwined sort of relationship. It’s frustrating sometimes, because I have many opportunities to have partners who feel the way you describe here, but who aren’t open to more meaningful and more intimate life sharing.

So, yes, I think you have a valid criticism of the way many people approach polyamory, and it’s one I share. On this, I think I can understand your frustration.

And, is it really true as my partner claims that a poly person can’t make a long-term commitment, and that the proper open relationship (or any relationship) is always here-and-now, with no guarantees, because after all, many relationships aren’t forever anyway?

Well…yes and no.

I think I see what he’s trying to say, and I also see how you’re interpreting it. If I’m right, what he’s trying to say is that there is never any guarantee of “forever.” And he’s right. The world is filled with monogamous people who sincerely believed they would have a relationship that lasted “until death do us part,” and then didn’t. Life happens; people grow and change over time; there are no guarantees. I mean, hell, there’s no guarantee you won’t get hit by a bus while you’re crossing the street tomorrow!

At the same time, though, I see what you’re saying as well. “No guarantees” is not the same as “no commitment.” The fact that no relationship comes with a guarantee does not mean that you cannot commit to doing everything in your power to include your partner in your life in the long term, and to grow and change (which you will) in ways that include your partner. If someone sees the fact that life has no guarantees as a reason not to make commitments, I have to say I think that’s kind of a cop-out.

Is it true that poly people can’t make a Commitment, capital C, to a partner?

No, it’s not.

Is it true that who is primary and who is secondary is always subject to change without notice, because hey, who can control their feelings?

Ah…now that brings up a whole different set of issues.

There are a couple of different ways to think about what “Primary” and “Secondary” mean. Most of the time, people who use those terms do so prescriptively; that is, they believe that you can only have one primary partner, and that everyone else must be kept secondary.

The problem is, you can’t always decide in advance what your relationships will look like. You can’t always force a relationship to fit in a box that is not natural for it. Yeah, when you try to determine in advance what form your relationships are allowed to take, then you can and sometimes do find that you can’t control your feelings, and that your relationships will take on some other form. If you have an idea that there must be one “#1,” one top dog primary, then this can be very threatening.

The other way to look at primary and secondary is descriptively, not prescriptively. You look at each relationship, without trying to decide in advance what it “should” be, and you use whichever term describes it best. So if you have a relationship with Alex, and the two of you live together and share a mortgage and a kid, then it’s reasonable to say “Okay, this is primary.” And if you’re dating Bob, and the two of you see each other once or twice a month, and don’t have any particular pressing need for more entwinement, then it’s reasonable to say “Okay, this is secondary.” And if you’re also dating Charles, and you and Charles have a deeply intimate, loving relationship, and you want to share your lives with each other and be there for each other for the long haul, you say “Okay, this one is primary too.”

That is, having one primary relationship does not necessarily mean taking that primary slot away from someone else; the word “primary” means “deeply committed,” not “#1.”

Is it true that if a poly person tries to suppress his crush on someone else, then he can’t love his primary partner, either? Seems strange, given that all the male friends I’ve polled have said that they do get crushes, of course, but they choose not to act on them if it will hurt their partners, and that decision not to pursue the crush (or alternatively, to pursue it) has nothing to do with how much they love their partners.

Having a feeling and acting on that feeling are two separate, unrelated things. There is no reason that having a feeling means being compelled to act on it; regardless of what you may feel, you choose what you do. Also, having a crush on person A and loving person B are two separate, unrelated things; someone’s feelings for person A don’t have anything to do with person B.

It’s possible that what your partner is trying to say is “If I get a crush on someone else, and I can’t act on that crush because it would upset you, then it will be hard for me to love you because a part of me will resent the fact that you’re making me suppress this crush.” I don’t know if that’s his reasoning or not.

I don’t know any other really poly people besides my boyfriend (if he is poly) and the people at the natha yoga school he hangs out with (and quite frankly, those people seem a little perpendicular to reality, what with all the bizarre theories about emotional wavicles, and open relationships being the only enlightened choice).

Oh, God. I can rant for days about the “Tantric/yoga/transcendental meditation/magic crystal and woo-woo” poly crowd. Suffice it to say I have little in common with them.

I guess the thing I’d like to understand is, what’s manipulation, and what’s real? What’s a poly person, and what’s a person who wants lots of shallow relationships and no deep ones—or a person who isn’t ready for any kind of relationship at all? What can I expect from a poly partner in terms of commitment, and what on earth does commitment mean when it isn’t exclusive?

Good questions.

I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules that let you spot for sure a person who is poly because he’s afraid of commitment.

Ultimately, a person’s behavior is key. Behavior is an emergent phenomenon; a person behaves the way he does because of the things he believes. If a person values commitment, he doesn’t have to tell you he values commitment; his actions will show it. He’ll do things to honor and cherish your relationship, without being told to, and will seek as far as he is able without compromise to himself to give you the things you need.

I do not believe commitment means exclusivity; rather, I believe commitment is about creating a set of intentions to share your life with someone, regardless of whether it is convenient or not, and then honoring those intentions. I think it’s certainly possible to do that with more than one person; hell, people do that all the time, with partners, family members, children, and so on.

I can only say that sounds really, really complicated and why on earth would that level of conflict of interest and inconvenience in juggling commitments be worth the extra relationship or two, when you already have a loving wife? It is a total mystery to me as a mono.

To a polyamorous person, this sort of arrangement is not more complex than monogamy; it’s simpler! If you ask many poly folks, they would tell you that monogamy is more complex, because it creates hierarchies of need and precedence which make it impossible for you to pursue those things which might enrich your life, and create relationships that put the needs of a spoken promise ahead of the needs of the human beings in that relationship, all for the sake of making sure that relationship lasts X number of years regardless of the cost. For some poly folks, there is an idea that monogamy means “staying with the first relationship you began simply for the sake of that relationship, even if the people in that relationship no longer benefit from it and the relationship itself becomes a curse rather than a blessing.”

I’m not saying I hold this view of monogamy, but I can understand this view, and I can understand how it seems to someone for whom monogamy does not come naturally that monogamy can feel like an artificial construction that disregards the needs of the people in the relationship for the sake of the relationship itself.

In the end, a thing is simple if it is what comes naturally to you, and complicated if it is not. A polyamorous relationship does sound very complicated to a monogamous person; to me, it seems easy and effortless, and a monogamous relationship sounds complicated and I’m not quite sure why anyone would choose it.

OK, I can sort of dimly, hypothetically imagine a case where I might already have a best female friend who then becomes my man’s lover, and that because of the love I have for her, she becomes essentially a co-wife or sister or family member, as you describe, with Commitment to all parties to this 3-person marriage. But for that to happen, my man would have to accidentally fall in love with her and we would have to then mutually decide to solve the problem by mutually marrying her and bringing her into the family, so to speak. It wouldn’t work if he just went out and took her as a lover, not even if I had veto power—she’s not family to me if she’s de facto jammed down my throat, no matter how much I love her for herself.

I have a lot of trouble understanding this; it seems very confusing to me. Are you saying that a relationship that begins by accident is preferable to a relationship that you choose? Why?

I’m saying that it’s more forgivable for him to hurt me by falling in love by chance than for him to decide it might be nice to spread himself around and actively start searching for alternative partners, even though he knows how extremely painful it will be to me. You can’t always help falling in love, and if you’re poly, I guess you can’t deny yourself some of those extra relationships without extreme suffering, but if you know that your partner is mono and that such relationships WILL hurt her, then there’s no need to go out of your way to find one. If it happens, it happens.

It almost sounds like there’s a subtext here that if your partner began a deliberate relationship with someone else, you feel that you would be powerless—that it would be “jammed down your throat.” But surely in a deliberate relationship, you and your partner both have a choice? To me, it seems like an accidental relationship would be the one that you would be powerless over.

Well, sort of. If he deliberately goes out with prior intent to find someone else, and especially if he doesn’t tell me about it until the relationship is well underway, then the person is being jammed down my throat.

If he’s happened to meet someone and has become infatuated and hasn’t decided what to do about that yet, then I’m included in the decision about whether the relationship gets pursued or not. It’s partly about what stage the other relationship is in when I find out about it, and partly about whether he went around with prior intent to form another relationship, or whether he didn’t mean to hurt me, it’s just he happened to fall in love and now we need to find an equitable way to cope, given that he’s poly and I’m not.

Personally, in any relationship, I believe very strongly in letting my partners know at every step along the way exactly what’s happening, and making sure I understand how they feel, whenever even the possibility of a new relationship appears on the horizon—long before that possibility is ever explored.

Some poly folk resent this very strongly, feeling that if they inform a partner of what they are feeling, they are somehow giving up “control.” I once had a partner who felt this way so strongly that she felt she was “giving up control” or that I was “controlling her” even if she told me how many other partners she had, and to what extent she was involved with them!

What I’ve learned is that a person who approaches polyamory from such a direction is a very poor match for me, and has very little in common with me when it comes to relationships, even though we are both polyamorous. I do not rightly understand how information is control; I don’t see how a person who tells another person what his feelings are is therefore surrendering control of his life.

Since all my good female friends make my level of mono look like wild swinging, I have kind of a hard time imagining this happening in real life…but OK, never say never.

But my man had better not simply tell me he’s got an itch and he wants me to be self-sacrificing and help him pick out a new lover…I’m not enthusiastic about sharing, at all, and I’m not a doormat. So I have kind of a hard time imagining this kind of family thing working in real life, unless there are mono wives/girlfriends who are willing to more or less welcome as family anyone their man chooses to bring home, within reason.

Hard to imagine that such saints exist in real life…and sounds like a very loose and non-permanent definition of family to me, which is not what the essence of family is about, in my mono view….but still, am I on the right track here imagining that this is how a poly views the world? Every bit of understanding helps.

I think it’s possible to be monogamous and still to have a voice in the partners your partner chooses, and in the forms those relationships take. I don’t think the only alternative to a relationship that begins by accident is a relationship that begins when he arbitrarily chooses someone and says “You have to like this person, take it or leave it.”

You have to be careful whenever you talk about how a poly views the world; there are at least as many different approaches to polyamory as there are approaches to relationship in general.

Certainly there are polyamorous people who do exactly what you’re talking about—choose partners more or less arbitrarily, without worrying overmuch about the effects their partners will have on their other partners and without particularly striving toward the idea of stable, committed family. I know many such people, and they seem happy enough. These are not choices that would make me happy, but that’s okay.

I can’t honestly say I completely understand this approach to polyamory, though it is very common in the poly community. Quite honestly, I do believe that my own approach to family, and to the things that I want from family, are probably closer to a monogamous view of family than they are to many of the polyamorous people I know.

I think that stable, intimate, long-lasting, committed families of polyamorous people are possible, and that some, but not all, poly folk want this, just like some, but not all, monogamous people want this. For me, there is great joy and wonder in a close, loving, committed relationship; emotional intimacy, vulnerability, intention, all these things bring me incredible bliss. And for me, when I can share these things with more than one other person, the joy and bliss I feel increase.

I would not welcome just anyone my partners choose to bring home, and I would not expect my partners to welcome just anyone I choose to bring home. For me a very important part of relationship is not simply how I connect with a person, but how my partners connect with that person as well. And I’ve been blessed in having partners who feel the same way. Shelly’s other partner Ted is a very close friend to me, and someone who I feel enriches my life in many ways even though we are not sexually or romantically linked. I can easily see what she sees in him; he’s an amazing person, and I feel lucky that her relationship with him has brought him more into my life. We are not lovers, but he is a part of my family nonetheless…and the fact that I consider him a part of my family was my choice, not hers.

This is very good to hear. I don’t think I would mind this sort of thing nearly as much.

Back on the subject of commitment, though, it comes down to this: What do you want your life to look like? What does it take to make you happy? What is the value in remaining in a relationship that does not give you what you want? Can you have those things in the relationship you have now? If the answer is “no,” then what is the value of keeping it?

I can only say this is not something a committed monogamist asks until she reaches the breaking point, because if you’re loyal to someone, you’re loyal, through thick and thin. It’s not easy come, easy go. That’s the whole point of the mono mindset. Discovering that my man is poly is sort of like discovering he’s got AIDS or schizophrenia or is bisexual. It’s going to be a nightmare to deal with, but it’s not something that I’m going to abandon him over, just because it’s inconvenient or painful to me to live with. Relationships are not, to a mono, primarily about love and pleasure, although pleasure is important; they’re about love and commitment, or love and loyalty. What’s the poly take on that?

To me, it seems that you’re talking about two different situations here when you talk about staying with a partner through thick and thin: dealing with calamities that may happen to your partner, such as discovering he has AIDS or schizophrenia (or, dealing with the loss of a job, or a traumatic injury, or any of the other misfortunes that can befall a person), and dealing with the truth of who a person is, such as discovering that a partner is bisexual, or polyamorous, or whatever.

Absolutely, a committed relationship must be for better or worse. Ambrose Bierce, who was famous for his cynicism, once wrote that the definition of “friendship” is “a ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.” There are certainly people—and I don’t think this has anything to do with monogamy or polyamory—who have the same approach to relationship.

And to me, such a relationship isn’t committed. Commitment does mean being there for the bad times as well as the good; it does mean not abandoning your partner if things are hard, or if some disaster falls.

But for me, the truth about who my partner is isn’t something that I see as a disaster or a calamity, like my partner developing schizophrenia or losing a limb in an accident. I tend to believe that if I love someone, and then learn some truth about who she is as a person, and because of that truth change the way I feel about her, then I didn’t really love her to begin with. Love requires knowledge; you cannot love someone you do not know. I would not consider learning that a partner was bisexual to be a nightmare to deal with, but rather as some aspect of my partner’s being which helps to make her who she is…does that make sense?

I see a significant categorical difference between being distressed at someone’s condition, and being distressed at who someone is. To me, something like “being polyamorous” or “being bisexual” is a fundamental part of who that person is; essentially, what you’re saying if something like that is painful to you is that who this person is pains you. In such a case, it seems more likely that the relationship may become one that cannot make you happy.

I also think it’s helpful to ask what purpose commitment serves. Is commitment a goal into itself—“I remain in this relationship because remaining in this relationship is what I do”? A romantic relationship exists, at least in theory, because the people in that relationship gain value from it—because it enriches your life. When you meet someone, you don’t begin a relationship randomly; you begin a relationship because this person has qualities that you like and respect and admire, because this is a person you want to share yourself with and you want him to share himself with you, because being with this person makes your life better.

If it should come to pass that, for whatever reason, each of you would be happier, more fulfilled, and more enriched if you were not in this relationship, then what value does the relationship serve? What purpose is there in maintaining a commitment simply for the sake of that commitment, when the relationship the commitment serves does not make either of you happy? Is there any point at which you step back and say “I am in relationships because they make my life and the life of my partner better; if this relationship does not meet that end for either of us, then this relationship no longer needs to continue”?

I agree with you, except for two things. One is, that I like to take the long-term view of relationships, so the fact that a relationship is causing me pain for a few years, say, is not a reason to chuck in the towel if it looks like there’s a reasonable chance that things could get better; and I also would have to be sure I gave a situation a really serious effort, even though it was very painful over a period of time, before I’d agree that it wasn’t going to work. But yes, I agree, once you reach the point where no progress is being made, or once you reach the point where you realize no more compromise is possible, then it’s time for the relationship to become just a platonic friendship instead.

The second thing I’d have to say is that I don’t really see the difference between someone having AIDS and someone being bisexual or poly, in terms of its effect on the relationship and in terms of how I feel about the person.

Finding out that my man is poly doesn’t change my feelings for him, because however painful it is, it isn’t one of those deal-breaking ethical violations, like finding out that he was a chronic cheater or cruel to animals; and anyway I didn’t find him attractive because he was mono, but for other personality traits that aren’t affected by his poly orientation.

So the poly bit isn’t really part of the “who he is” category for ME, in terms of the relationship, even though it’s obviously part of his personality overall. I mean, who he is in general terms includes all the parts of his personality, including being poly. But who he is as far as my loving him is concerned is that subset of characteristics that are key to my loving him or not, and the poly orientation isn’t one of them.

Well, that’s a tough call. All the aspects of a person’s personality combine to make him who he is; I don’t think it’s always so easy to separate one part of a person’s personality out and say “This part does not contribute to the things about him which I love.”

For me—and I can’t speak for other poly folks here—the fact that I am poly and the fact that I am kinky are not discrete parts of my personality that stand on their own. They inform and color everything about the way I see and relate to the world, to such a degree that I think if these things were to disappear, my personality would change significantly.

The poly bit may be a part of the “who he is” category, in indirect and subtle ways. That’s a really tough call to make.

For me, it’s not. It’s rather a causative part of the “what he does” category. I might not like behaviors that result from it, but unpalatable behaviors don’t kill my love per se, if the loveable personality elements are still there and the unpalatable behaviors aren’t the result of some deal-breaking negative personality element. I do think though, that his being poly is going to put a similar strain on the relationship to a disaster such as AIDS, and so, especially since his being poly was revealed in a kind of <bang>, it feels exactly like that kind of disaster—the sort of relationship strain that’s an accident of nature, comes suddenly, and means that things are never again going to be the way one ideally wanted them to be.

This is definitely one of the reasons that I advocate early disclosure. The fact is, the basic assumption in most relationships is one of monogamy; by not telling a prospective partner “I am polyamorous” early on in a relationship (or ideally well before a relationship even starts!), a polyamorous person can easily cause a monogamous person to feel tricked or misled.

Some poly folks I’ve talked to say “I don’t like to bring it up because I don’t want to scare away a prospective partner.” This misses the point in a dramatic way; a person who is “scared off” by polyamory is precisely the person who is not likely to have a happy relationship with a polyamorous person in the first place!

I’d say that the relationship still deserves honest effort to make it work, even if he didn’t say he’s polyamorous up front. If I’m committed to him, I can’t just say, oh well, you’re not 100% the man I thought you were, and you’re doing something I don’t like, so I don’t love you anymore. I guess for me, sticking with someone through thick and thin encompasses personality changes, too. Like I had a dear friend who was in grad school for 10 years, and who became progressively needier and bitchier (not to mince words) as the time went on. Keeping up the friendship was a real strain, and it wasn’t clear if and when she was ever going to get back to being “herself”. But I’m glad we stuck by each other. She isn’t the same as before, but the person she’s become is also a very dear friend and is a real pleasure to be around again. I guess I’d want to give my relationship with my man the same chance.

With many of the monogamous people, and partners, I have known, there seems to be an underlying assumption that if a relationship ends, under any circumstance and for any reason, then that means the relationship, and the people in it, have failed. But must that always be true? If a relationship once served to make you and your partner happy, and you both benefit from it, and that relationship teaches you things which make you a better person…but then things change, and it no longer makes either of you happy, is there anything inherently wrong in recognizing that, and in seeking relationships which do make you happy? Does commitment need to serve only itself, or is it best when it serves a different function, such as enriching your life and making you and your partner happy? I’ve seen enough joyless, loveless partnerships to believe that a relationship can continue without it being a “success.”

I say this as a person who has a history of having his relationships last a very long time; I do not believe in letting go of a relationship merely because it is no longer convenient, or because some calamity has made it hard. But at the same time, I also see a difference between letting go of a relationship simply because it is convenient, which is something I do not believe is an admirable trait; and in letting go of a relationship if it becomes obvious that the relationship can no longer make the people in it happy, in which case I see nothing wrong with seeking relationships which do make you happy. For me, commitment is not an end in itself; it is a means by which I build relationships that serve the end of making me and my partners better people. Ultimately, commitment, like rules and laws and other social constructs, is neither good nor bad of itself, but is valuable when it is in the service of something valuable.

Incidentally, how hard is it for a poly to live as a sexual mono, but emotional poly, with multiple emotional but not sexual relationships? I don’t really grasp why, if I’m willing to let my man be as close emotionally to other women as he wants, why he can’t refrain from actually sleeping with them, for my sake. If he says he needs multiple relationships because he gets different stuff from different women, well, that obviously (to me) doesn’t include the sex component, because sex is something you can get anywhere. The special part of any relationship is the personal interaction, no matter how great the sex may also be with that person. And as a relatively non-jealous mono, I don’t have a problem if he needs deep emotional interaction with other people. I just don’t want him sleeping with them. Is that impossible for a poly to manage, and if so, is there any way you could clarify why?

That’s an interesting and complicated question, and in a lot of ways it goes right to the heart of what it means to be a polyamorous person, and what expectations and ideas people have when they talk about “romantic relationships.”

For starters, before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I can talk about myself, but I can’t speak for polyamorous people in general. There are quite possibly even more different ideas about and approaches to sex than there are ideas about and approaches to relationship, and people have very, very different motivations when it comes to sex.

For many people, including many monogamous and many polyamorous people, it seems that the basic drive for sexual relationships is something that stands on its own. Most people do have a basic need for sexual intimacy, and I think that a lot of people can have that need met with a sexual partner and not need it from other sexual partners.

But that’s not the case with me, and it’s not necessarily because I have a strong sex drive. For me, I can’t answer that question without backing up a bit and talking about why I need multiple relationships in general.

I think that almost everyone, monogamous or polyamorous, can understand the drive to be in a romantic relationship. A monogamous person who is single is very likely to feel dissatisfied with being single, and to feel a need to find a romantic relationship; certainly, all the dating Web sites out there suggest that this is true. ? For almost every psychologically normal person, the need to be in a romantic relationship is a fundamental part of the human condition, and regardless of what kinds of relationships you seek or what relationship models you embrace, when you’re single you probably feel the drive toward relationship.

With most monogamous people, it looks to me that what happens is that once they’re in a romantic relationship, that need is met, and the drive is switched off. You’re single; you feel a drive to be part of a romantic relationship; you enter a romantic relationship; that drive is no longer present.

No, no….you enter a romantic relationship and you still have that drive full throttle; but you focus it on that one person. Sometimes you might feel something for someone else (everyone gets crushes) but out of respect for your beloved, and a wish to give your relationship all the time and attention and love it needs, you just let the crush die and don’t act on it. (This is not least because as a mono you don’t have an infinitely divisible romantic attention span. You can’t really split your romantic feelings without doing both half-assedly, sort of like some people (me included) can’t really read and actively listen to music at the same time.) It’s not that your drive for a romantic relationship dies. It’s that it becomes an infinitely repeating (and self-reinforcing) loop focused on the one person. Alas, what often happens, though, is that people grow apart or stop investing time and energy in something they take for granted, and to your point, remain in the shell of a relationship that has, in fact, died. I think these people must feel about the same as single people, and I think it’s why when a relationship has reached this stage, you get people cheating and then switching partners.

For some poly folk—or at least for me—that drive does not switch off when I am in a romantic relationship. It’s still there. This is not because my relationship isn’t fulfilling, or because my partner isn’t “good enough,” or because I am looking for something my partner can’t give me; nor is it because the relationship isn’t the “right” one, or because the relationship is lacking in some way. It’s simply a question of still feeling the pull toward emotional intimacy and emotional connection, even when my existing relationship is absolutely delightful. I talked earlier about the joy I feel in romantic relationships; that joy does not diminish the pull toward greater emotional entanglement with other people, nor diminish the additional joy I feel in another relationship.

So why does it have to be sexual?

For most people, including most monogamous people, I think it’s reasonable to say that sexual intimacy is a part of the basic drive toward and assumptions around a romantic relationship. If you were single, how would you answer someone who asked “Well, I understand why you want to be in a relationship, but why does sex have to be a part of it? Can’t you be fulfilled in a romantic, committed relationship without sex?” And realistically, would you be happy that way?

This is not fair—some sex, with someone, is a basic need like food and sleep. The question is why is sex needed with every partner?

For the same reasons that it is needed with one partner, I think; because a romantic relationship, to most people, feels like it is hollow or lacking if there is no possibility that that relationship can be expressed physically.

Romantic relationships, in most people’s conception, include at least the possibility of sexual intimacy. For me, the drive toward sexual intimacy is not something that stands on its own; it’s not like I need sexual intimacy in my life, but once I have a sexual partner, I no longer need sexual intimacy anymore. Rather, the drive toward sexual intimacy is attached to the romantic part of a relationship; the emotional intimacy creates the drive toward physical intimacy as well.

I do not need sexual intimacy from ALL my relationships; I have, and have had, relationships of varying degrees of sexual intimacy. But with me, a committed, emotionally intimate relationship is what gives rise to that need for sexual intimacy.

OK, gotcha. Not that I like it, but I understand. Thank you for explaining, in a way that makes it intuitively clear to me as a mono! In fact, it sounds like what you actually have is a need for multiple mono-like relationships. Sort of…

Didn’t courtly love used to be seen as a perfectly normal model of how a guy could have a wife and other women at the same time? My grandfather had such a relationship with a neighbor’s wife for 25 years, and that worked just fine, because she and he both respected her husband and his wife enough not to become sexually intimate. They just enjoyed each other’s company for a couple of hours after dinner a few nights a week, and the latent sexual tension. Seems like a reasonable compromise model to me….

Courtly love as it existed in history often did include sex; it’s just that nobody talked about it. Having a wife and a mistress is a tradition with a long history.

Leaving that aside: Again speaking only for myself, yes, it is possible to have such a relationship. I do have a friendship quite like what you describe; for about nine years, our friendship has been filled with latent sexual tension, and I can enjoy that without feeling any need to act on it. (Making the situation a touch more ironic is the fact that my friend self-identifies as lesbian, but that’s a whole ‘nother matter.)

But that friendship is not emotionally intimate in the same way a romantic relationship is. And it is emotional intimacy which creates, at least for me, a stronger pull toward physical intimacy. If I am deeply emotionally intimate with such a person, the sexual tension is not something I can enjoy; it’s a constant, ongoing need.

I’d like to turn that, though, if you don’t mind. Why NOT have sexual intimacy? What is it about sexual intimacy that creates a problem? If the relationship is emotionally intimate, what is gained by not allowing it to become sexually intimate as well, and what is lost if it does become sexually intimate?

Because the sexual intimacy is a black/white indicator of whether this is a relationship or a friendship. With sex, either you sleep with someone or you don’t. It’s pretty unambiguous, Bill Clinton and his “I did not have sex with that woman” to the contrary. But emotional intimacy is ambiguous. Friends come in all different degrees of emotional intimacy, from just sports buddies to people who could have been your spouse if only you were opposite genders, people who are emotionally closer to you than most of your blood relatives. You can’t really tell by the degree of emotional intimacy whether someone is a friend or a romantic partner. Even the kind of love you feel for them blurs; I have male friends I find attractive and with whom I would probably enjoy sex, as an expression of how fond I am of them, if not for the fact that I’m mono and I’ve already made my choice elsewhere. I guess, to be flip, it’s like I might love every tennis racquet in the shop, some of them almost as much as the one I have at home, but in the end, I’ve chosen the one I have and I really love it and I wouldn’t know what to do with two, really. So while I can fantasize about what having that other racquet would be like, actually I’m very happy with the one I’ve got, I’m satisfied I made the best choice, and I’m going to focus on my game and not on switching back and forth between multiple racquets, which, frankly, would just be distracting and not helpful to improving my tennis.

Ahh. But for many people—polyamorous, certainly, but monogamous as well—there isn’t such a hard and fast distinction; sex is not always the defining aspect of a relationship. Sex is certainly possible with romance, and romance is possible (though often frustrating) without sex.

I’ve known many monogamous people who feel threatened by emotional intimacy even without sex. In fact, there’s even a name for it—“emotional infidelity”—and a number of self-help books that claim this “emotional infidelity” is as bad as, or worse than, sexual cheating.

It’s been my observation that many monogamous people don’t see sexuality as the defining aspect of a romantic relationship, and do in fact feel as threatened or more threatened by emotional intimacy as by sexual intimacy. I think that’s reasonable, too; emotional intimacy, even without sex, really can be a significant threat to a relationship if it is not handled properly or if the person who feels it is not being sufficiently attentive to taking care of the existing relationship. “New relationship energy” does not necessarily begin at the moment of sexual intercourse, and the things you were talking about before with respect to an old relationship seeming “boring” by comparison.

For many people who identify as monogamous, the sex is not nearly as big a factor as the emotional intimacy. Certainly my monogamous partners have felt this way; the sex was not what was threatening, the emotional intimacy was.

I expected to find that I was jealous of the emotional intimacy, too, but I’m just not. If having extremely close female friends makes my man happy, then I’m happy for him. Just as long as they’re only friends, however close, they are no threat to my relationship with him, because it’s a case of apples and oranges; no fear of displacement.

Yet there are still many of the same concerns you talked about before: time and energy, attention, and so on.

I suppose if he began spending the majority of his time with one of them, we’d have to have a discussion about how much time and attention I needed from him, but it wouldn’t be a jealous discussion. But I do want to be the only romantic partner, the one who gets top priority in a crunch, the one who has his children and with whom he builds his life. As you pointed out, the sexual element takes a relationship that infinitesimal yet important step beyond any friendship, and I want to be the only one who has that extremely intimate relationship with him. Anything short of that, though, is fine with me; I’m not jealous of friends. I have the feeling this isn’t really typical mono thinking, though; I’ve noticed some of my friends get jealous even of their partner’s hobbies (!?), even when this is not some trivial pastime, but, say, a serious athletic gift we’re talking about. Weird…

I’ve also seen monogamous people (and, sometimes, polyamorous people) become jealous of a partner’s hobbies and other interests.

And if it is not a trivial pastime, but is a serious gift, I think it becomes all the more understandable. A significant athletic talent requires the dedication of large amounts of time and attention, and unquestionably competes with a romantic relationship for that time and attention.

I think one very good way to deal with things like hobbies or other activities is actually the same way I respond to a partner’s other partner—reach out and embrace them. A hobby can become something that divides time or comes between the people in a romantic relationship; or it can become something they do together, that brings them closer. A new partner can divide time; or, that new partner can become a friend, someone to spend time with as well. (Recently, one of my partners was out of town for a couple of weeks, and her boyfriend came and spent some of that time with us. By establishing a friendship with my partner’s partners which stands on its own, my own life is enriched; my partner’s other partners become a welcome and comfortable part of my life.)

Of course, that can’t happen if the division is forced on you. If your partner does not welcome you into his hobbies, and does not consider you in his choice of other partners, this is virtually impossible; and in either case, it seems reasonable to me to feel unhappy about these things; you are experiencing a tangible, quantifiable loss because of them.

Interesting…your comments are helping a lot to see how a poly relationship could be less threatening. It doesn’t sound so much like what I associate with polyamory exactly, but more like what I would describe as a group marriage. In some ways, anyway.

Group marriage is one form of polyamory; some, but not all, poly folk do want exactly that kind of interconnection and commitment. I won’t say it’s common for people in the poly community to want group marriage, and (on a side note) ironically, sometimes the people who do want this level of interconnection do so because they’re reluctant to address insecurities of their own.

Often, newcomers to polyamory, especially couples first discussing becoming polyamorous, decide that what they want is a closed relationship with a bisexual partner who will sleep with both off them, on the theory that they will not get jealous if they share the same partner and they do not let that partner have any other partners.

The irony here is that jealousy doesn’t work quite so neatly; it is indeed possible to be jealous of your partner being with someone else even if you yourself are also sleeping with that “someone else.” And, needless to say, most such couples are unsuccessful in finding that third person; seen from the view of that third person, what they’re offering isn’t exactly appealing.

The problem with setting out to create a group marriage is the same as the problem with setting out to find a spouse; if you look at everyone as a potential spouse before you even get to know them and learn how they fit into your life, you’re not likely to succeed.

Ideally, I would like a relationship that looks like a group marriage, though I don’t actively seek to fit people into that mold.

I’m not sure whether my man is really interested in that level of commitment—I remember him saying that he wants multiple partners because life is a dance, and why should he only dance with one person? My response being, that’s fine if you’re casually dating, but real relationships are not like going to the disco and having a nice few dances with several different friends. A real relationship is like Olympic level ice dancing, and there’s a reason why you skate with only one partner at a serious level—mainly because of the time and effort involved, but also because it’s hard to maintain that high level of concentration, intuition and chemistry with more than one person at once. This is not to say that you need to be with that partner all the time—it’s just that whatever you share with all the other important people in your life, it isn’t ice dancing; and it’s also that if you have a real drive to make your ice dancing really good, you know that in case of conflict, (almost) everyone and everything else are going to have to take a back seat to your training.

That’s an interesting analogy.

I can see the value in wanting to focus your efforts and energies on building deep, connected, emotionally intimate relationships. It’s been my experience, though, that the organized poly community has many people whose approach is more similar to your partner’s—people who want to explore sexual connections with those around them, to “explore the dance” without becoming too entangled with one partner.

I think that many people think of the word “polyamory” as being one thing, when in reality the various approaches to polyamory are so radically different from each other, in practice and in concept, that they have little in common other than the fact that they involve more than two people.

Perhaps this is not so much the mono view of relationships, though, as my personal view. I tend to be extremely focused and intense about whatever projects I’m working on, including relationships.

Last updated: Tue May 12, 2020