This post partly grew out of a conversation with my friend Wesley Fenza, who writes at Living Within Reason. Wesley has a companion blog post with his more measured take on this issue.
Through the lens of mainstream media depictions of polyamory, I am the poster child for Bad Poly (and Bad Non-Monogamy, generally). Posturing for respectability is not for me and never will be, and I am not the least bit sorry.
How did I come to identify as poly and want to be non-monogamous? Neither feminism nor sexual liberation had much to do with it — not that there necessarily are any universally good or bad reasons for being poly in the first place.
I was not “born this way,” I was bent into this particular shape by a god. Allah told me that polygyny was okay and so I made my peace with it. After all, in Islam, making the permissible forbidden is a sin. That peace was forced to cower in front of the altar of peer pressure. All the women I knew swore they’d kill a husband who came home bearing news of a co-wife. How could I want to share? So I never told the truth, and joined in with the other women and girls in their half-idle oaths against real and imagined spouses.
But I did want to share, though I hid it well. I dreamed of a wife — for my husband, I told myself (I was hardly ready to deal with my feelings for women). The co-wife would free me from a life of household- and childcare-related tasks. I would be free to roam in search of glory for the Ummah (through me, of course) if Future Husband and I married someone who, like many women I knew, preferred not to work.
Later, after I left Islam, I heard about polyamory thanks to The Montel William Show, and then from cute men I talked to online via OkCupid. My theoretical polyamory came via patriarchal religion, a daytime talk show, and older male internet crushes I met on dating sites. Strike one.
I entered my first relationship wanting to be poly but sure that I would never get a boyfriend if I insisted on non-monogamy, and ended it in the most cowardly way: by having a rather sordid one-night stand. My second relationship started out open but opened and closed throughout our two-year-eight-month stint as per his whims and my pleading. It was unhealthy all around. I started what is now my cohabiting relationship towards the end of that second relationship, and went through the break-up early into it. My practical poly was incredibly tumultuous even though I was incredibly self-aware, and I tried to be monogamous even though I knew it wouldn’t work for me. Strike two.
How does my non-monogamous relationship function? We don’t have rules or veto power or hierarchies, and sex, while not everything, has plenty to do with it. My relationship style is not respectable and chaste. My longest-standing non-platonic relationship to date is a friend-with-occasional-benefits. I started dating the partner with whom I now live and share most of life while we were each dating other people; we never had to “open up” or have long-winded discussions and negotiations about non-monogamy.
On the other hand, my life is not quite a model of fully-pansexual relationship anarchy. I do not have an equal number of partners of every gender, and men are over-represented in the number. My resources are not distributed in perfectly egalitarian fashion among my partner. I am married to and fully financially support one of them due to his disability. The others vary in terms of how often I see them and how much time I spend with them, and not always due to distance, either.
My relationships don’t align along a “married plus” hierarchy nor do I quite fit in with the relationship anarchy crowd for economic and other reasons. Strike three, I’m out of the Good Poly Club.
How do I approach talking about my relationship style? I don’t bother to appease the biased perceptions of the majority when it comes to other issues, so I don’t do that with my poly, either. I don’t coddle when monogamists do that weird thing they do when someone mentions having more than one partner. I am unapologetic and unwilling to cater to oddly-defensive people. I am not trying to convince anyone that my relationship style is for them, so I’m not sugary-sweet about their naked hostility. A bonus strike if there ever were one.
Everything about my practice of non-monogamy is what poly people interviewed in the media insist on fighting as stereotypes and bad publicity, and yet I’m quite happy, and that’s ultimately what matters.
Main image by John Christian Fjellestad