P.S. – Notes from an apologetic polyamorist, by Red Chidgey

Last month we published a review by Red Chidgey of Tristan Taormino’s latest book, a guide to open relationships. We ended up changing the headline for this review – in this post-script, Red explains why and elaborates on some of the other comments received. You can see them on the monthly comments page

This is to hold my hands up and take responsibility for my rather snotty-nosed attempt to be provocative/antagonistic in the title of my book review, ‘Loving Outside the Lie of Monogamy’. A few of you rightfully gave me a ticking off and I’ve changed the heading back to its original formation, ‘Loving Outside the Line’. For this post-script, I’ve also delved back into Opening Up, and a few other sources, to address the comments received so far from the review. Here goes:

1. Monogamy is as valid as non-monogamy, and vice versa.

Absolutely. The critique of monogamy in Tristan Taormino’s book Opening Up: A Guide to Creating and Sustaining Open Relationships lies with the “unspoken rules” of being emotional and sexually exclusive with one other person:

The expectations are endless: your one-and-only is your soul mate, the person with whom you are 100 percent sexually and emotionally compatible, your ‘other half’ with whom you share the same values about everything. He or she will fulfill all your needs – physical, emotional, psychological, affectionate, financial, romantic, sexual, and spiritual. If you are truly in love, you will never have any desire for anything from anyone else.

Some people see through this unspoken mythology, consciously reject the unreasonable expectations, decide to commit to one partner, and are satisfied. These folks choose monogamy and it works for them. But it is more common that people are monogamous not by choice, but by default.

The crux of Taormino’s argument is that good relationships come from an honest appraisal of yourself and your needs; and that your emotional and social life can be tended by receiving care, intimacy and friendship from a number of sources (certainly, even someone happily monogamous might feel the strain of being their partner’s only support system…)

The key thing here is choice. We’re not all mindless relationship zombies, souping up the dominant narrative of relationship morality, if we enjoy a one-to-one partnership with someone – oh no. I do believe, however, that social, political and legal mores conspire to create unrealistic expectations and sanctions that are damaging when not freely chosen.

At the very least, there is precious little legal-economic-social awareness about people who have more than one partner: try telling your boss or your mother that you have two boyfriends, for example. It’s havoc. And embarrassing. Because it seems to imply that you’re either i) a giant ‘slut’ ii) really cheating and just trying to cover it up iii) weird (and I’m sure there’s some further gender and sexual dynamics to this too). I dread to think what happens in courts of law when a polyamorist mother is fighting for custody rights with her children, or how multiple relationships are treated (or invisibilised) at funerals by the deceased’s wider family. We just don’t have any cultural/secular frameworks for multiple loving relationships.

2. Nature’s animals are a monogamous bunch

This is the first myth that Taormino busts in Chapter Two of her book:

Human beings were meant to be monogamous; like other animals, it’s how we bond and mate.

…It’s well documented that most animal species are actually not monogamous. Out of 4,000 species, only a few dozen choose one mate, have sex with that one mate, and stay with that mate until one or both die(s).

On a related mythical note, evolutionary psychology has long been pressed into action to justify claims about female and male difference: men sow their wild oats, women cling to one partner to ensure the survival of their offspring, apparently. More realistically, some polyamorous folks have quite traditional monogamous relationships – in terms of sharing their lives and finances and declaring a long-term commitment to one another. I think interesting questions can be asked here about what ‘monogamy’ means on an emotional level – for example, if it means to trust and commit to someone, then this is also the staple of many non-monogamous people’s relationships – except it might be with two, three, or more other people instead of one.

3. Open Relationships are a Feminist Issue

Is monogamy a patriarchal structure? It’s interesting to look at the etymology of the word ‘monogamy’ here – ‘mono’ means one, and ‘amus’ means marriage (interestingly, ‘polyamory’ isn’t in my dictionary, but ‘polyandry’ is – the practice of having more than one husband at a time).

Of course, marriage has long been a site of feminist contestation for a host of reasons – whether it’s the traditional Christian vow to “honour and obey”; forced marriages (whether for religious, economic or other reasons); or the contemporary fight within the LGBT community to be able to commit to one’s partner on an equal footing as the straight folks. (And, of course, those who staunchly think that all marriage is dubious, being an economic contract sanctioned by the State for good hetero-behavior).

In the ’70s, British feminists explored the problems of monogamy and marriage in publications such as Wedlocked Women by Lee Cromer (1974) and The Politics of Sexuality in Capitalism by the Red Collective (1973/78). Critiques of monogamy clustered around a perceived treatment of people as possessions (a sentiment that runs through many a pop song!) For better or for worse, feminists of yore who practiced open relationships include Simone de Beauvoir, Olive Shreiner and Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai. There’s also the feminist fiction of Marge Piercy in Small Changes (1972) and Woman on the Edge of Time (1979) for inspiring tales of alternative loving and sexual relationships.

Just because we don’t live in a utopic future, however, doesn’t erase the fact that social mores have changed considerably since the second wave; the sexual double standard has started to loosen and life-long monogamy has been replaced by serial monogamy (in ideal anyway). For many of us, monogamy means being sexually exclusive with one person – with or without the ring on the finger. For those interested in pursuing this feminist strand further there is an interesting essay called ‘Whatever Happened to Feminist Critiques of Monogamy’ by Stevi Jackson and Sue Scott in the book The Feminist Seventies (Raw Nerve Books, 2003).

According to these authors, “Monogamous love was seen as individualistic, demanding to be placed at the centre of another’s universe, while building one’s own world around them” – the kernel behind the popular saying, “my other half”. The backdrop to this sentiment, from a feminist position, is the daily practice of “investing” so much in one other person to the detriment of other relationships (which leads to isolation and co-dependence). Then, when the relationship isn’t Perfect, sublimating considerable energy into trying to transform it/the other partner or just bouncing along, being not very happy (couple’s therapy has also boomed as a trade). Dependency and power struggles can also happen in poly relationships. Quite bleakly, Jackson and Scott cite Sue Cartledge’s depiction of heterosexual polyamory in 1983: “My clearest memory of those months is of trekking from one flat to another, diaphragm in handbag, trying to appease both husband and lover, endless rows, and feeling somewhat like a bone between two emotionally-demanding dogs.”

Of course, as Jackson and Scott point out, polyamory is not to be “doing emotional and sexual labour” for two or more people at your own expense. Instead, Jackson and Scott juxtapose polyamory with the number of cases where people say that they’re monogamous, but have “lapses” (which are forgiven if not forgotten):

A substantial minority of women, as well as men, are not, in practice, monogamous but are likely to claim to be. Occasional ‘lapses’ are explained as one-off events of little significance…Many heterosexuals say, for example, that it is better to ‘stray’ with someone you don’t care about than with someone you do care about and that they could cope if their partner had a one-night stand that ‘means nothing’ but not if it was a meaningful relationship. We find this perplexing. Do women really want to have relationships with men who treat other women like this? Would they not rather have relationships with people who cared who they were intimate with? Are new ‘meaningful’ relationships really so threatening; do they necessarily invalidate an existing relationship? Is it time we questioned anew the contradictory, and often disturbing, ideas that support monogamy.

The political side of open relationships, I believe, is realising that other options are available which treat desire in ethical and celebratory ways, not through deceit or guilt. As one option, polyamory comes with its own set of problems and conflicts (hence the need for guidebooks like Opening Up); as well as joys. It really helps to have a community of poly friends and lovers to draw support from when you’re poly – for me, poly connections also lead to the political question of replacing atomized intimacy with expansive, collective potential. I’ll give an example. If I had two children, our society wouldn’t expect me to love them any less. Why then does my culture assume one romantic/sexual love equals true love? Why is ‘sex’ considered the special glue which keeps people together (or not); what’s the potential of having sex with friends, and for destabilising the primacy of the ‘the couple’ in our everyday lives? How can we challenge ‘compulsory sexuality’ – where all romantic/intimate relations are expected to be sexual between adults? How can we find freedom and fulfillment within a range of personal relationships, which complement rather than ‘complete’ us? These are questions for exclusive and open relationships alike.

4. How equal are open relationships for the people involved?

Every relationship is unique. The goal is for all folks involved in open relationships to be happy about the arrangement and to benefit from it. Sure, there’s a lot of jealous and heart-ache; and not all relationships are equal in times of priority, attention, and so on. This is something that needs a lot more exploring within open relationship literature; for example, what to do when you fall in love with someone but they can’t return that love with the same intensity. Flicking through Taormino’s book, she talks about “New Relationship Energy” – when a new person comes on the scene and everything is sparkly and hot, to the neglect of older bonds. In terms of being the ‘new’ person, and feeling low on someone else’s priorities, there are snippets of anecdotes and advice scattered throughout the book. Taormino does a somewhat grand job of providing informative, helpful sections on the practical details: rules and agreements (setting the terms of the relationships); jealousy; feeling excluded, and time management, amongst other things. Interestingly, she also broaches the ‘Myth of Equality’:

Every partner in a relationship absolutely should have an equal right to consent, negotiation, and to be heard. But some people have confused equality with symmetry, making the assumption that everyone should have the same thing…

Work to achieve balance, rather than equality. This is not simply a matter of semantics; there is a difference. Balance means that everyone is generally getting their needs met; no one is compromising too much or feeling too limited by the agreement. All partners have agreed to priorities concerning the time and energy they dedicate to the relationship, and each partner’s actions reflect these priorities. No one feels taken advantage of.

This is the ideal; ‘balance’ isn’t often struck in practice (or it’s a process…). If people have stories of being in an open relationship, and how they’ve negotiated boundaries and heart breaks, I would love to hear them…

5. The ‘Have Your Cake and Eat It’ Philosophy

Ask a polyamorous person about their relationship style and they will tell you straight up how much work it is – such as the micro-management of feelings and the emotional energy involved in ‘processing’, for example. There is a lot of maturity and skillful communication needed to take up this path of heart connections without being reckless – and you often learn how to do it on the spot, with tons of mistakes.

Informed consent is the bedrock for any successful relationship; that doesn’t mean that everyone is 100% happy with the situation all the time, but they need to be informed about the situation so that they can make empowered choices within it. If anything, polyamory is about process: negotiation, checking-in, drawing boundaries, and such. At the end of the day, the onus is on being true to yourself and co-creating the kind of relationship you want/need; or drawing a line around yourself and leaving a bad situation. As with any kind of relationship really.

The thing lurking under this comment, however, is the slightly pernicious myth that polyamory is just another word for promiscuity. Whilst appreciating that many polyamorist feminists are striving for greater parity between non-sexual and sexual relationships, Taormino puts it like this: “While a polyamorous person may have several lovers, polyamory is not simply all about sex. Polyamorous relationships may encompass friendship, companionship, support, camaraderie, love, intimacy, connection, commitment. All that said, having an active sex life with more than one person isn’t a bad thing.” Please keep your comments coming….