22 Aug 2013

Musings on polyamory

** PLEASE NOTE - this is not intended as an endorsement or criticism/condemnation of any particular lifestyle, be it monogamous, polyamorous, celibate or 'other'. It's just me thinking out loud **

I'm currently reading The Ethical Slut, one of the most famous books written on polyamory (open relationships, having multiple partners, whatever you want to call it) and often signposted as the Bible for poly people. So far I'm not overly enamoured with the book, for several reasons. One, it's couched in a lot of self-help language, which I suppose I should have expected seeing as one of its authors is a therapist. But the constant affirmation exercises wear a little thin after the first few, and after 5 or so I felt like bawling 'Look, I'm never going to DO any of these, can you just please tell me the answers to my questions and stop wasting my time with these BS 'self-love' exercises!'. And what are my questions? Well, I suppose they're the same questions that most people considering polyamory ask, and most of them revolve around jealousy. Like:
How do you not get jealous? How do you stop your partner getting jealous? Isn't it natural to be jealous? Isn't jealousy a sign you shouldn't be poly? Doesn't the fact most people still want to be monogamous, despite the fact we're so crap at it, imply that human beings do have a need to be #1 to someone?
And despite being 54% of the way through the book (so my Kindle informs me), I don't feel like the authors have actually addressed those questions, or at least done so in a way that's helpful to me. There's been a lot of talk on loving yourself (and not like that, fnar), but not much exploration of the questions and fears surrounding polyamory. So far the authors' solutions seem to be:
- Talk to your partner (never bad advice, but do any of us really need to buy a book to know that's what we should do whenever we have relationship issues?)
- Make sure your self-esteem is really strong by doing loads of exercises saying why you're great
- Let go of social expectations around monogamy
The latter is a pretty tall order, and one that I'd therefore I'd like to see explained further. Although the aforementioned expectations are so deep rooted and so powerful that it would take volumes of books to unpick them all, I'm irritated that this book isn't dealing with them in any more than a superficial manner. Because that's what I, and I suspect most of us, really want to know. Are my poly tendencies merely evidence that I'm wired differently from the dominant model of sexuality, and my difficulty expressing them evidence of just how aggressively the hegemonic model is reinforced? Or are they evidence that I'm weak, greedy or bad at relationships?
Those of us who have a vested interest in coming to terms with our poly tendencies are obviously going to prefer the former explanation, but have we truly considered the possibility of the latter? This is what I'd like to hear more of in a book exploring polyamory - not just the authors glossing over the issues by saying 'Some people disapprove of polyamory, screw them and their repressive beliefs, go for what you want'. And yes, that might be all the encouragement some people need, but as a cautious, analytical person who seeks pleasure but not unquestioning hedonism, it's not enough for me.
The consensus I seem to keep reading when I research polyamory is that jealousy is not itself a sign that poly relationships are wrong. Instead, jealousy is a 'symptom, not a cause' - usually originating from lousy self-esteem. While there may be a lot of truth in that, I'm not sure that covers the whole gamut of reasons for feeling jealous. If, as a child, you felt jealous of your sibling because your mum was cuddling him/her and not you, perhaps it was because you secretly feared your mum didn't love you because you were an inadequate person. But perhaps, actually, you just wanted a cuddle then and there because it felt damn nice, and you were annoyed someone else was benefiting from the thing you wanted. We're humans - we're greedy and selfish, and we want the things that we want, NOW. We're happy when we get them, and we're unhappy when we don't. Couldn't the explanation just be that simple?
The book mentions the 'starvation economy' that the monogamous hegemony teaches us to believe in, whereby we believe that love given from our partners to another is love lost to us. This keeps us in a state of panic that love is going to 'run out', like a finite resource, when obviously that's nonsense, because most of us have more than one close friend who we love, and most people have more than one child and would (hopefully!) say they love them all equally. And yet, that analogy just doesn't feel like it quite holds for relationships. This may indeed be because of socially reinforced tropes - no one expects a parent to 'run out' of love by the time they have to kid # 4, yet all adults ARE expected to be emotionally, mentally and physically fulfilled by one person, and taught to feel monstrous when we can't manage that. Which seems a little effed up, to say the least. However, I still think it's kind of na├»ve to believe there isn't at least some kind of starvation economy at work. It's a simple matter of maths to work out that you can't give the same amount of attention, affection (and yes, OK, sex) to 10 lovers as you could to 5. Or to 4 lovers as you can to 2. And yes, I know I'm translating 'love', a supposedly infinite resource, into 'time', an obviously finite one. But I'm a realist, who doesn't believe that intimacy, fun and affection can be maintained invisibly. They require time, energy and organisation - otherwise they die.
But sometimes they die anyway, and that's the issue upon which I always hit a bit of a wall. Because one of my reasons for thinking I should be poly - and perhaps this is a bad reason, and evidence that I'm doing it all wrong - is that I have always ended up bored and dissatisfied in monogamous relationships. I've never cheated, but I've certainly felt like it, and felt deeply tempted to do so by my attraction to other people. Proponents of monogamy would tell me that's natural, that I just have to work past those feelings, that it's an inevitable part of being in a couple which you just have to deal with. Proponents of polyamory would say the opposite, that it's evidence of how monogamy limits us and leads us to feel ashamed and a failure just because of our own natural attraction to others. In my case, it's usually been evidence that I should leave that particular person because things aren't working, not that I should stay with them and open our relationship up - so that's not an amazingly helpful answer.
Now I'm wondering how one stops that dissatisfying situation recurring. Is the answer just to avoid emotional commitments and stay casual (something that's extremely difficult to do, as the more time you spend with someone the more you will inevitably come to mean to each other, unless you conduct your relationship on an extremely cold basis where you never exchange any personal information or even have a chat over a cup of tea, and I can't be that switched-off/disciplined), or is it to allow whatever feelings to come up, and enjoy them while you can? The fact that I've always ended up disappointed by whoever I've paired up with in relationships implies to me that being poly could just be another way of getting disappointed by more people, more regularly! I know having multiple relationships could be a cushion - one let-down might not hurt so much if you are already successfully engaging with someone else - but ultimately it seems that time and boredom is going to knock down all your spinning plates eventually, it's just a matter of when. And in that light, polyamory just seems like a way of distributing the problems with monogamy across more than one person.
That's the paradoxical thing though. We have this need to matter to someone and to care about them, and then when it happens, we get bored with it. And then we look for the next person we want to matter to and care about, to make it feel new. I'm not sure that a model of sexuality that indulges this fickleness of humans is such a great thing. That's not a shout in monogamy's favour, but it's certainly a question about the limitations of polyamory to overcome our essential nature, which I do believe is ultimately selfish.
And that's what the book ultimately seems to shy away from - asking the question, why DO we want more than one lover? Why do we think we even deserve this? What makes us think that this is an impulse that should be indulged, rather than questioned? How can we be sure it's not just our short attention spans, insecurity and crapness at being alone that's making us think we need multiple partners? This is not judgment of anyone who is poly, but my own questions that I'm demanding of myself. Because I know that insecurity and crapness at being alone have, in the past, made me stay in monogamous relationships when I should've got out, and I don't want these same flaws to be the things that drive me to polyamory thinking it's a solution.

Post-script - poly feminist blogger Charlie Hale took the time to give their answers to some of the questions raised above, here. Well worth a read.

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