No discussion or mention of polyamory would be complete without a monogamous person chiding the polyamorous person to not be “preachy” about their “lifestyle choice.” There will often be an accompanying anecdote about how the monogamous person once met a polyamorous person who was very “pushy” with them. “I don’t care what you do in the bedroom,” the monogamous person will assert, “But I wish polyamorous people wouldn’t be so judge me for my choices when I don’t judge theirs.” Even articles ostensibly about non-monogamy do this.
Though I don’t doubt that monogamous people have had experiences that left them feeling judged, and it is a fact that there exist some rather smug-seeming polyamorous people, I don’t buy the idea that they are as common as monogamous people make them seem. Rather, it is more likely that monogamous people are picking up on and picking on polyamorous people in an absurdly disproportionate way.
Messages Mandating Monogamy Are Everywhere
If you really love someone, the conventional wisdom goes, you consider them to be the end-all be-all to all of your romantic and at least most of your sexual feelings. Nearly every love song, movie (romantic in genre or not), wedding announcement, Facebook profile, and dating site* reinforces the idea that people are supposed to end up with one person. This is true more so for women, but is also true for men. While expected to crave threesomes with two women, and, in general, sex with as many women as possible, heterosexual men are still told that they ought to “come home” to one woman, the “housewife” they will love and cherish unlike the “ho”s with whom they enjoyed all that premarital sex.
If it weren’t for my Muslim upbringing, I would have never considered the idea of sharing a partner before the age of 17 or so. Even so, I was surrounded by fellow Muslim girls and women who insisted that they would get a divorce if their husbands were to marry another woman. They thought it odd that I considered it a positive option for my future.
Newbie Polyamorists Are Excited
That I grew up devoutly Muslim enough to consider polygyny as a viable life option was a coincidence in my favor. That I happened to see the 2005 Montel Williams Show episode on polyamory while home alone sick one day was a coincidence that my formerly-theistic self might have called kismat or naseeb. That, of all the faraway men I talked to on OkCupid, I happened to connect most with a newly-polyamorous one, enough to become emotionally close to him, also helped. Lots of people who might have otherwise decided in favor of polyamory don’t get lucky that way. Lots of people never hear about their options. Some do but never get the chance to consider them seriously.
This is why newbie polyamorous people might come off as “preachy”: They just had a completely life-altering paradigm-shift about which they are happy and excited. I once was in that position. I was wrong to assume that monogamous people are only so because they haven’t considered their options. However, I wasn’t a bad person for being excited about something that I knew would enhance and improve my life for years to come. I wasn’t wrong to think that polyamory (or any other alternative relationship style, for that matter) is something that most people don’t know much if anything about, let alone consider.
Like first-time parents, teenagers experiencing first love, or newlyweds, newbie polys often seem obsessed with things that others find boring or mundane. It generally will pass. Unlike first-time parents, teenagers experiencing first love, or newlyweds, however, newbie polys are making a non-normative societal choice, and so, like vegans or deconverted atheists, are vilified for their excitement instead of indulged.
#NotAll But Enough Monogamous People Are Defensive or Even Hostile
The mention of more than one partner will often mean the lobbing of all kinds of oddly-defensive retorts from monogamous people: “It isn’t for me” when no one asked them to be poly or “One relationship is hard enough; I couldn’t imagine more than one” which practically baits a “smug poly” response.
The defensiveness could be a result of a prior bad experience with a “preachy” poly person, but that is hardly the whole story. Just as posting a vegan recipe will cause omnivores to post the groan-inducingly juvenile “yum, bacon!” comments, saying the word “polyamory” is a siren call to defensive monogamists insistent on their right to monogamy.
Mid-Level Non-Monogamists Get Trained By Hostile Monogamists
Even worse than the defensive ones are the hostile monogamists. They will claim that a polyamorous person doesn’t know what love is, refuses to commit or grow up, is a vector for disease (nope), must be abusing their partner, and so on. In their quest to undermine the validity of polyamory, they will call everything about the polyamorous person into question.
Talk about your multiple partners? Disgusting lifestyle-flaunter, keep it in the bedroom! Don’t talk about your multiple partners? Have fun being treated like a liar and cheater when you are outed. End a relationship? Proof that polyamory doesn’t work (even though most monogamous relationships also end). Don’t act miserable about the breakup of one of your relationships? Clearly you don’t value your multiple relationships and are secretly monogamous. Show your grief about the end of one of your relationships? Quit your whining, you have other partners to comfort you.
The personal and societal hostility that polyamorous people face affects us. It is far too easy for us to go from eager and happy newbies to people who front-load declarations, answers, and defenses of our life choices. We come to expect defensiveness and hostility, so we try to avoid or circumvent it.
Some of us swing around to what sounds like, and sometimes is, smug polyamorist supremacy. When the world around you is constantly shouting about how wrong you are, declaring your superiority can feel like a legitimate response, the only way to oppose such strong negative messaging. I don’t endorse it or think it’s the best approach, by any means, but in some circumstances, it’s understandable if alienating and annoying.
Open-Minded Monogamists Get Annoyed
Without knowing what poly people have faced, the less poly-hostile monogamists might not understand why we don’t discuss our lives without the shades of tension coloring what we say. Defensive and angry monogamists do exist and are more common than a certain class of defensive monogamous person think. Just as a man might respond to talk of sexism with “but I’ve never done anything sexist or seen anything sexist,” a monogamous person is far less likely than a poly one to have noticed hostility towards non-monogamy, or recognize their own actions as hostile.
Furthermore, any form of non-normativity is often automatically more visible than its more mainstream counterpart. This is true for everything, not just relationship style. If you’re an omnivore, you are far more likely notice when someone doesn’t take any of the main meat dishes or asks about the ingredients in a dish at the office Christmas party buffet line, not when someone wordlessly plops a little bit of everything on their plate like everyone else is doing. The one person who doesn’t pledge allegiance to the American flag, or who doesn’t say the words “Under God”, is going to be noticed more because they are an outlier even though the majority is doing the opposite. Movies get R ratings for a single same-gender kiss but heterosexual saliva-swapping-fests get G ratings**.
The same goes for the person who talks about their wife and their boyfriend, their two husbands, their three life-partners, etc.: The mention is going to stand out as a declaration to a monogamous person whereas a similar mention of a single partner would not. No one accuses anyone of making monogamy the sum total of their identity when they talk at length and often about their spouse, but if a poly person has the gall to talk about their partners, suddenly they’re “obnoxious” about it. Even people who aren’t hostile or defensive about their monogamy fall prey to this distorted perception.
Higher Standards Are for Outliers
Sure, some polyamorous people are smug and preachy, but so are some monogamous people, and yet every mention of monogamy isn’t paired with an admonishment to monogamous people to be open-minded and accepting of alternate choices. This is in spite of how many more monogamous people there are than polyamorous ones, meaning that, statistically speaking, there are far more smug and preachy monogamists than polyamorists. I wonder why that might be.
Hint: It’s the same reason why black people have to play the respectability game, lesbians and gay men are told to stop having any kind of NSFW fun at Pride, trans women are told to accept mistreatment and murder while waiting their “turn” for equality, atheists are told to pray to soothe the feelings of theist relatives, and so on.*** In order to be treated with the same respect as those in the dominant group, members of the outlying group are compelled to go above and beyond in order to earn a tiny fraction of the acceptance automatically bequeathed to those in the dominant group.
Show your anger? Get defensive after being attacked? Speak up and out? Betray vulnerability? Have an imperfect past? Too bad! Unless you act anything but sugar-sweet all the time, you’re clearly evidence for why all of you people deserve less than basic decency.
If You’re Part of a Catered-to Majority, Act Like It
Why did I keep bringing up veganism? Because I am part of a catered-to majority as an omnivore. I once lived with a vegan who put PETA fliers on the fridge. Boy, was it annoying. All of us omnivores have an annoying vegan story, but that doesn’t mean that the world at large has suddenly stopped catering to omnivores. My annoying experiences are no reason for me to lash out at a group that isn’t in the catered-to majority. It took me a long time to own up to that, to be certain, but it’s the right thing to do.
This applies intersectionally as well. I have experienced fat-shaming from vegans in the guise of them promoting their ethical views. I can be critical and even furious about those people’s fat hatred without acting as if their veganism personally victimized me. I also have legitimate race-related criticisms of vegan culture. Neither the fatphobia nor the bad track record vegan orgs and individuals have on race issues are valid reasons for me to engage with hostility every time someone calls themselves vegan or talks about their veganism. It’s not as if only vegans hate fat people.
Now, my dear monogamous people, take all that and apply it to your views on non-monogamy.
Even if every poly person on the face of the planet were a “preachy” newbie or a “smug” old hand, the world as a whole wouldn’t suddenly become poly-friendly, let alone poly-accommodating or poly-dominated. There is no legitimate reason to act beset-upon when you are part of an overwhelming majority whose choices are constantly reinforced and validated****.
If you are monogamous, at least in that aspect of your life, you are part of a catered-to majority. Please act like it.
* Yes, even Ashley Madison. The now wholly-disgraced site didn’t promote non-monogamy, it promoted the idea of maintaining one’s social and emotional monogamy but paired with hidden sexual infidelity. It’s the same facade that powerful men have been taking advantage of for eons: wife out front, mistress(es) on the side.
** In the one and only time I’ll agree with a commenter on a parent movie review site, I seriously have no clue how The Princess Diaries got a G rating, a movie that I remember as being at least 75% face-sucking.
*** This is not to in any way suggest that polyamorous people are as oppressed as any of those groups, or that atheists are as oppressed as people of color, or what have you. What these examples depict is an unequal standard when you compare the treatment of the more socially-accepted group against the one that is less-accepted.
**** And yes, there are legitimate criticisms of polyamory. Race-based. Class-based. Etc. That’s different from what I’m discussing here.