Everything I Know About Monogamy, I Learned From Polyamory

For most people and most relationships, the mainstream monogamous relationship model fits and there is no need for them to question it overmuch. The mistake is not doing what works for you if monogamy is what that is, it’s assuming that mono-to-poly relationships are the only ones where the terms of the relationship change.

I’m not just saying this because I’m poly and tired of my relationship style being treated as the only one where painfully-common problems arise (though yes, I rather am, thank you). I’m also saying this because a lot of wholly-avoidable issues come up in relationships of all kinds when people don’t acknowledge those changes for what they are.

While I know that some people swoon directly into each others’ arm at first sight and swear eternal undying devotion and commitment to one another and immediately run off to a courthouse to wed, very few monogamous married relationships start out exactly like that. The script often goes something like this: You meet someone, get to know them (a little or a lot) and assess mutual romantic/sexual interest, have a few (or many) dates before you are officially In a Serious Relationship with them, spend some time in a relationship before you decide whether or not to marry, and then either get married or restart the process with a new person.

That is more or less the mainstream heterosexual script for starting a lifelong relationship (YMMV). And guess what? That trajectory reflects several changes in the terms of a relationship along the way. You weren’t legally married to (or, if it went the other way, broken up with) them when you were in a committed non-marriage relationship with them, you weren’t in a committed relationship with them when you were in the deciding/dating phase, and you weren’t dating them when you’d just met them and/or were getting to know them. The terms of your relationship with that person changed several times and there was nothing wrong with that since you both talked about and agreed to those changes (or I’d hope so).

Because monogamy is still very much the mainstream ideal and norm for relationships, it may be hard to see shifts that follow the script as changes in the terms of a relationship, yet that’s exactly what they are. And because even positive change can create or aggravate stress, monogamous folks would do well to examine them carefully. Lots of people who truly love their partner and sincerely agreed to the change in the terms of the relationship were still challenged by, say, moving in with, getting married to, and/or having a child with that partner.

Additionally, just because a certain change in the terms of a relationship is commonly done doesn’t mean that it’s necessary for that particular relationship or person(s). Relationship advice columns are rife with questions from people worried about their relationship not progressing along what they feel is the socially-acceptable timeline. Additionally, there are people who sort of shrug and go along with typical relationship milestones because that’s what they think they ought or even have to do. Being monogamous doesn’t have to mean following that script, but sadly, a lot of people don’t realize that there are, indeed, options.

Acknowledging that all relationships are negotiated and experience many kinds of change over time may seem obvious, but it isn’t always obvious when your relationship is the mainstream kind. That’s why I can say that everything I learned about monogamy comes from being polyamorous. While I am not any sort of monogamy expert, having a relationship style that by definition cannot rely on pre-set societal norms means I have to talk about and think about my relationships more than I would if I could default to a script. All relationships could do with more self-reflection and specific, explicit conversations about their respective terms rather than reliance on a set of assumptions.

Everything I Know About Monogamy, I Learned From Polyamory

14 thoughts on “Everything I Know About Monogamy, I Learned From Polyamory

  1. 2

    And then you get different cultures and people don’t actually understand what “dating” is even supposed to mean. Honestly, I still don’t quite understand the concept and what it actually means in terms of relationship. And then those things change over historical times.
    Fun fact: my grandma is a schoolmate of my husband’s grandma. Not that we knew before, but I come from a small place. When I first got together with my husband his grandma mentioned marriage and children and all that jazz to her and my gran cut her short. She told her “You know, when we were young, things were like that: You met somebody, you fell in love, you got married. Those times are over. Now the young people do things differently and that’s good!”
    So yes, our scripts are changing alongside our relationships. People who become grandparents without ever getting married are not impossible. Yes, I know, it means we have to think more about things, but that’s good.
    I sometimes wish I had known more about different sorts of relationships before I settled down “the traditional way”. My children probably will be very aware of such things.

  2. Moz

    it means we have to think more about things, but that’s good.

    Exactly! It gets us used to starting the discussion early around “so hey, I’m poly…” rather than waiting until suddenly “my Dad wants you to ask for my hand before we move in together”.

    It’s also interesting how what’s offensive changes over time, and between communities. For me it came in the clash between Christian misogyny and feminism. To someone from a SE Asian country who’s nominally Catholic (except for the ancestor shrine in the corner of the living room) the idea of asking for a daughter is perfectly normal and hopefully his daughter will respect him enough to insist on it. To me the whole idea that she’s his to give away or not is offensive to me, and an admission of his failure – she’s supposed to be an adult but she can’t make key life decisions on her own?

    It’s also handy because having a non-trivial discussion about relationships early helps me break out of my no-feedback habit where I forget to actually say what I’m thinking unless someone asks a direct question and waits for an answer. And gives the other person a chance to say “I do not want to talk about this” and walk away.

    Unfortunately it also means some people get utterly the wrong idea and assume that willing to talk about it is willing to do it. Possibly related to “forget to say” above. But also just “I want XYZ, you want ABC and never X”… well, do I really need to say “that’s not going to work”? Apparently, yes, sometimes. I’d say 9 times out of 10 it just becomes an interesting discussion that also fills out our community circles and helps build a friendly relationship.

    1. Moz

      how did you deal with am interested potential partner whom you suspected or knew to be married?

      Communication, same as most things. For me personally, I need to know that everyone involved is ok so I have to meet the metamours. Not everyone does that, probably most people don’t. But I’m not able to tell the difference between “they don’t know” and “they don’t want to know” without asking “them”. Rather than get into that situation I stop. It’s never been much of an issue. I’ve had much more uncomfortable “oh you will love my spouse, you two will hit it off” situations. It’s much easier saying “it’s not you, it’s me” than “you love them? Ewww!“.

      Perhaps oddly, I find I judge my metamours who don’t want to meet me much more harshly than the potential partners who don’t want me to meet their other partners. It always seems like they’re not comfortable with something that’s happening. Possibly because I’m a guy, and there’s a bit more to fear from an angry husband than a disappointed woman?

    2. 4.2

      As Moz says, communication. I’m new to polyamory, myself, but one of the people I’m interested in is married. Before we met, he let me know he was married. On our first date, I said that I would eventually want to meet his wife (in part to gauge his reaction and make sure he was being open about everything with his wife, and in part because I want to talk with her to reassure her and make sure her husband hasn’t misrepresented their relationship).

      I also want to second Heina’s endorsement of More Than Two as an excellent poly guide. I’m only about one third of the way through it, and I have already learned tons of things that I wish I’d known two years ago when I first started having polyamorous relationships.

    3. 4.3

      I am poly, yes. A big part of open, ethical non-monogamy is to be honest and forthright with your relationship status. Hiding their marriage from me or hiding me from their married partner would be a dealbreaker in my book.

      1. Hiding a relationship from other partners is definitely a deal-breaker, but it is reasonably common for even open, ethical, non-monogamists to be somewhat in the closet. Yes, all of my current partners know each other, and at least know of my previous partners, but few, if any, at work know I have multiple partners; I don’t talk about it.

        With regard to married polyamorists, that can easily lead to “Oh, zie’s married, so I won’t approach zir with my interest”, only to meet the married couple at a poly munch a year later, after the attraction has faded. This is definitely a different issue than the “My partner won’t won’t let me meet zir spousal-equivalent”, though.

  3. 5

    I’m not Heina, but will answer for myself: quite a few polyamorous people are married (myself included). The basics of communication and honesty don’t change if you’re married (or shouldn’t). If I’m considering getting involved with someone, I want to know at least a bit about any other relationships they’re in, and how those partners would feel about them possibly getting involved with me. People get married for a lot of reasons. You don’t need to be monogamous to be married, and you don’t need to be married to have a monogamous relationship.

    1. 5.1

      You don’t need to be monogamous to be married, and you don’t need to be married to have a monogamous relationship.

      True, but don’t you think it is harder to deceive for someone who is married, than it is for one who is not, but in a monogamous relationship?

      I guess I don’t quite know how this works, but “how those partners would feel about them possibly getting involved with me” would require you to not just trust the potential partner, but her partner(s) as well. Is that even practical with the fan-out? What if your partner is looking to exit her relationship? If she is married, then there is a clean break-up point. If not, then, I guess Facebook’s “It’s complicated” would apply.

      Thanks though for your considered response.

      1. Deception is not supposed to be on the table with poly relationships (and any, really). If you’re using poly as a way to “try out” other partners before you break up with your current one, that’s an awful abuse of non-monogamy and highly unethical.

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