“Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice?” is the poly-related question I get most often next to “How do I get my partner to try polyamory?” Let’s unpack this.
My answers to this question range from “yes” to “it depends” to “that question makes no sense.” Some people feel that their poly is an orientation, analogous to their sexual orientation. Some people feel that their poly is a lifestyle choice and that they could/would choose differently depending on the circumstances. So, it depends.
But more broadly, I don’t think this question makes much sense or is very relevant. Remember “the map is not the territory”? “Orientation” and “lifestyle choice” are not natural categories; they are concepts that humans created and can define and redefine however they like. We might as well argue whether being gay is bleep or bloop. What do bleep and bloop mean? You decide!
Of course, I’m being slightly facetious, as the terms “orientation” and “lifestyle choice” do have more-or-less accepted definitions. But those definitions are increasingly slippery. The idea that sexual orientation (or relationship orientation, if we’re including polyamory here) is innate and fixed has been challenged. I have myself challenged it, because my sexual orientation has changed. The idea that lifestyle choices are actually choices is also getting challenged by research in psychology and neuroscience that suggests that, while we do choose our behaviors, we don’t choose to be strongly inclined towards certain behaviors and not others. (That’s not even getting into the thorny issue that certain choices are so strongly encouraged or discouraged by societies that they might not feel like choices at all.) That means that even if engaging in polyamory is a choice, wanting to do it might not be.
And that means that the concept of sexual orientation is much more complicated than we thought, too. After all, nobody is forcing gay, lesbian, or bisexual people to have sex with or date people of the same gender. (Quite the opposite, really.) They don’t have to do it. They choose to do it, because they want to. While the idea of choosing not to act on one’s queer desires is mostly homophobic Christian tripe, it is technically true that your sexual orientation doesn’t actually determine your behavior or vice versa. That’s why queer people are still queer whether or not they’ve had any experience with same-sex love or intimacy.
I think that “Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice?” is a Trojan horse. It’s hiding two scarier questions that most people have a much harder time asking openly. They are:
- “Can I force myself into a monogamous relationship even though I prefer polyamory?”
- “Do I really have to tolerate these people?”
The first question is what’s usually meant by people who are asking about orientations versus lifestyle choices because they want to be polyamorous but their current or prospective partner wants to be monogamous. This is making them unhappy, so they’re wondering if being poly is like being gay–meaning, sorry, tough luck, you’re gonna have to deal with it–or if it’s like vacationing in Hawaii or going to burlesque shows, meaning that, as fun as it is, you can definitely live without it if you must.
This is where it comes back to my answer, “It depends.” Nobody can decide for you whether or not you can be happy in a monogamous relationship (or in a poly relationship, if the decision is going the other way). Some people can and some can’t. Sometimes you have to try it to find out.
But most of the people who ask me this are already deeply unhappy with monogamy, and already know that if they had their way they’d be poly. Guess what? When it comes to relationships, you can have your way. Anyone who makes you feel otherwise is manipulative at best and abusive at worst. You can leave your monogamous partner and start new relationships with poly people. Yes, leaving that partner may suck, but then you have to decide what sucks more, breaking up or being monogamous. Nobody can decide for you.
So, if the real question isn’t “which arbitrary socially-constructed category should I place polyamory into” but rather “can I be poly/monogamous or not,” then ask the real question, even if it’s scary.
The second question comes from non-poly people who feel uncomfortable, disgusted, and/or morally opposed to polyamory and want to know if they reeeeally have to accept and respect it. But that’s not something you can ask directly in polite company, so instead they go with the shorthand: is it an orientation or a lifestyle?
To understand why this shorthand works, you have to understand what I see as one of the great failures of the LGBTQ rights movement: the concept of respecting/tolerating people’s identities because they are (seen as) inevitable and unchangeable, not because it’s none of your damn business, doesn’t hurt anyone, or–this is the really radical option–because it’s simply part of human diversity and should be celebrated as such. In this framework, it’s wrong to judge people for something they can’t control. Judging them for their choices, however, is fair game.
“They’re born this way,” we say. “They didn’t choose to be gay. It’s wrong to hate them for something they didn’t choose.”
Of course, LGBTQ folks themselves have almost all moved on from this reductive and ultimately damaging mythology. But we share responsibility for promoting it in the first place, because now it’s become mainstream and is actively preventing acceptance of marginalized identities that are seen as chosen rather than innate.
That’s a rant for another blog post, though. The point is that when non-poly people ask if polyamory is an orientation or not, what they’re often implying is this: “If y’all didn’t choose to be this way, then I guess I can accept that because it’s not your fault. But if you did…”
Even if polyamory is as much a choice as which color of nail polish to get at the salon, you still shouldn’t judge people for practicing it–first of all because it’s got nothing to do with you, and second because it’s a valid relationship style that should be affirmed like any other. I celebrate any choice that makes someone happier and healthier and doesn’t harm anyone else. That’s why I celebrate (ethical) polyamory.
The question “Is polyamory an orientation or a lifestyle choice” is boring and irrelevant to me because it’s just sorting words into other words. It’s the semantic equivalent of taking a pile of books and putting them into arbitrary stacks rather than actually reading the books. If you find semantic arguments interesting, by all means, have at it. But I think most of the people who wonder about this question are not interested in semantics so much as in figuring out what kind of life they can have, or want to have.
Labels are useful for a lot of things, but they won’t answer that question for you.
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