Closing Off to Opening Up: One Girl’s Journey
Originally published on SexReally.com on June 16, 2010.
Everybody’s sick for something that they can find fascinating—everyone but you and even you aren’t feeling well.
This lyric, penned by one of my greatest musical inspirations, hits the nail on the head in terms of my own experiences and the observed experiences of my friends in all range of confounding, agonizing relational duress. There are some that argue that in this day and age, in which many of us live much longer than past generations and have many more geographical, professional, and emotional transitions, monogamy is unnatural and will inevitably lead us to frustration and a lack of fulfillment. I cite this particular Amanda Palmer line because I think it speaks to this lack, the frustration, the scurried looks around for the next big or better thing—including partners. I’ve thought a lot about the challenges inherent in all variety of relationship styles—long-distance, short-distance, queer, straight, monogamous, nonmonogamous, coupledom, singledom, marriage, domestic partnership, you name it. There was a point at which polyamory, at least conceptually, did give me pause, for several reasons: 1. I was brought up to question everything (even monogamy!); 2. As a result, polyamory struck me as worthy of exploration and thought; 3. Many practical factors, having nothing to do with ideology, affect relationships and should be taken into consideration; 4. Simply put, hearts are complicated. Especially hearts I’ve loved.
In theory, I can get behind polyamory—the practice of concurrent plural romantic and sexual relationships—even though my gut, primal instinct is towards monogamy. Like many of my friends, I read The Ethical Slut and a host of other critical (and not so critical) dialogues around nonmonogamy. It makes sense that people (yes, men, women, and those who ascribe to neither label) crave sexual, emotional, or intellectual variety in partners. Let’s face it—attraction is complex, confusing stuff. Often the people we want to sleep with are not the people we want to depend on. Often someone we are really attracted to is not someone with whom we could imagine spending any prolonged period of time, let alone sharing domestic or psychic space. All of this is hard to sort out.
Polyamory in practice, though, is a different story. Any good relationship, including a monogamous one, is going to have its share of challenges, but there are a certain interesting stressors brought about by different relationship structures such as marriage, living together, dating and living apart, or being single but sexual, to name a few.
The structure of a nonmonogamous committed relationship is, for many, the terrain of unknown variables. It can bring out the best and the worst in people. Pressures from society to couple monogamously, marry, and reproduce combined with a lack of societal, communal support to temper isolation can make it to difficult to navigate both monogamy and polyamory. There are a range of mitigating factors to be sorted out when you add extra people into an equation, and even those who think they can handle it all and are prepared for accompanying emotions may experience feelings and sideswiping they never knew they would. The truth is that one partner in an open relationship may have an easier time finding other partners due to charm, attractiveness, circumstance, or geography. Additionally, finding a partner does not mean that the physical or emotional experience of the new person will necessarily be what you had in mind. If you choose to introduce multiple partners, there is no way to control how one relational dynamic will affect the dynamics of your other relationship(s).
Some of these various issues come out in the book Kink, by Kathe Koja, which tells the stories of two partners who are each having an affair behind the other’s back—with the same woman. Of course this scenario is not the same as honest, forthright nonmonogamy, but it does engender contemplation of themes of fidelity, attraction, and orientation—as well as who has power, security, or an accurate view of their own relationship. It also drives home the reality that whether monogamous or polyamorous, two people can have wholly different perspectives of relationships and events—even those they experience together.
I am lucky to have some really inspiring polyamorous friends who are thoughtful, critical, engaged, challenging people—and they do have their struggles in relationships, but they try to deal with them creatively and compassionately. This includes honoring “secondary” partners’ lives and realities as much as those of their “primary” (I use the terms primary and secondary loosely because I consider them inherently problematic—they afford one partner a space of greater urgency, validity, and security, and to my way of thinking that cannot be a comfortable place for a secondary to be. Furthermore it seems hierarchy-driven, and hierarchy doesn’t strike me as a useful way to approach love), not dating another person who makes their primary partner uncomfortable, and thinking about how to allocate time and effort to value and respect all the people they are involved with. Unfortunately I have also experienced polyamorous people who have poor communication skills, who choose to triangulate and breed competition and misunderstanding between partners, make unethical sexual decisions (as many “monogamous” people do), and centralize themselves as the most important narrators in the drama of life, with others merely serving as peripheral players. In a word, snore.
This isn’t to say that monogamous relationships don’t have their fair share of communication issues, emotional laziness, lack of passion, solipsism, and selfishness. But different relationship structures require different strategies to deal with problems. And a different lens for analysis.
Adding other ingredients into a soup gone wrong doesn’t fix the soup—it just makes it a crazy soup with more ingredients. If you are struggling in your relationship, new partners may serve as a temporary distraction or relief, but won’t fix your problems long-term. Then again, there are all kinds of soups and ways to enjoy them—and we as a culture could stand to think about and embrace that a little more.
Relationships—sexual or not, monogamous or not—require engagement, contemplation, selfishness as well as selflessness, nurturance, and challenge. While monogamy is what makes me feel happiest and healthiest with the right person (someone who feels that the same way and not as if it has been foisted upon them), I will also fight for a world that allows freedom to consider all options and choose mindfully what best fits each of us individually. I like coming to my monogamy as an elected, thought out, feeling-and-thinking-based process rather than a paradigm default. I want a world in which people are respected regardless of gender, age, relationship structure, or orientation—and are empowered to make decisions that are best for them without fear of castigation or reproach.
And a world with its own fair and healthy share of ongoing critique, natch.
Katy Otto is a social justice activist, writer and musician who grew up in the DC area. She works in nonprofit management and development.