Fairly standard in Polyamory 101-type guides is some sort of discussion about what reasons make for a good or a bad start to a non-monogamous relationship style. Such lists, written by experienced non-monogamists, often seem prudent to peruse, each item apparently self-evident in its validity.
Who could disagree that reluctantly engaging in multiple relationships because your partner wanted to when you weren’t really feeling it is a bad thing? After all, people should not do things they don’t want to do.
Who doesn’t agree with the idea that having an open relationship because your partner cannot fulfill all of your needs is a good thing? It sounds so much better to add more partners than to replace the one you have, if you love that person.
The problem with this sort of reasoning is that it represents a One True Path style of thinking that is relatively ironic given the relationship paradigms that non-monogamous folks claim to reject.
Peruse nearly any advice column or relationship advice manual, and you will find discussions of deal-breakers and red flags. Some are legitimate, like the ones used to assess whether someone is an abuser. Most are sort of arbitrary and based on anecdata and platitudes. The personal deal-breakers based on astrological signs, birth order, or names* can be rather funny to read and share.
The more generalized deal-breakers are usually based on things that might seem reasonable and so are declared common sense. “Once a cheater, always a cheater”, even though plenty of long-lasting relationships begin with a torrid affair or were only possible because someone had a prior breakup due to cheating. “Long-distance relationships don’t work”, despite the existence of the Internet, which has facilitated many relationships that exist between people hundreds if not thousands of miles away.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t some value in knowing whether or not someone has broken the rules in a prior relationship or considering the downsides of dating from afar. It’s more that such generalized, calcified notions rarely work in reality, and that, in most cases, there is no way to predetermine how a relationship will work out.
There exists a very human tendency to navigate what the beginning of something must have meant using its ending as the compass. The conclusions drawn this way often represent a retrofit based on hindsight rather than some sort of profound insight. “They didn’t remember my birthday our first year together, so they clearly never gave a shit about me and it’s no wonder we broke up” is much more reassuring to most people than “This was one of the staggering majority of relationships that ended before at least one of the people involved died.”
This same magical thinking about What Works vs. What Doesn’t Work leaches into thinking about non-monogamy. People in non-mainstream subcultures have to exist in and are influenced by the overarching mainstream culture. We are not immune.
It’s especially tempting to engage in this reasoning because it doesn’t seem magical. “I am a very jealous person, so polyamory was a failed experiment for me” sounds entirely rational, but had the same situation ended more positively for the person, the story might have been told as “I am a very jealous person, so obviously being polyamorous forced me to deal with that and become less of an insecure wreck.”
I feel almost guilty for saying it, because newbie and/or prospective non-monogamous people often crave and cling to The Definitive Lists of Bad and Good Reasons, but there really is no such thing. Most items on such lists are based almost entirely on reframing initial motivations based on eventual results.
Exacerbating the problem is how it is almost impossible to comprehensively know your own motivations for doing something. Very few people, even the most thoughtful, always have a complete grasp all of on their own reasons at every given moment.
To return to the examples of reluctant non-monogamy as bad and need-fulfillment as good, the way each can be presented varies wildly.
“My partner wants to, but I don’t” looks like a very bad reason to do something when it is taken in isolation from related and overlapping reasons. However, rarely do people in non-abusive situations do something that they definitely do not and never ever would want to do. Something led them to try it rather than declaring “Hell no, I won’t do that!”, something that monogamous people are careful to interject at the mere mention of anything not monogamous, even when they aren’t being asked to be non-monogamous in the first place.
There are people whose initial and even primary motivation to trying out non-monogamy was “my partner really wants us to” who later became enthusiastic about it. The formerly reluctant tend to frame the story as “My partner expanded my horizons and though I was unsure at first, I needed to learn and grow through this experience, and now I can’t imagine being monogamous again.” On the other hand, people who started off in the same place but had a negative experience will frame it as “My partner wanted to open up, but I didn’t. I did it anyway, and of course it sucked because it wasn’t my idea.”
Don’t take my Bad Poly** word for it. Think of how many poly people will say something along the lines of “I need more than one person to fulfill all my needs.” This Pokémon-esque way of thinking about fellow human beings is widely considered to be a positive, legitimate reason to be polyamorous, yet its flip side — “I alone am not enough for my partner” — is widely considered to be inherently unhealthy. Hoping that having other partners to fulfill them will ensure that your partner won’t abandon you completely makes total sense if they claim to need to spend a lot of time training up a Caterpie, since your electric powers are useless against Brock***.
Even when they play a role when viewed in hindsight, examples of motivations commonly considered to be wholly unhealthy, like feeling less-than-adequate for your partner, are rarely so obvious and clear-cut during the process of opening up a relationship. There is usually more to it than that. Thinking that it was a Clear Sign of Failure that you can avoid in future might be comforting, but it also represents an oversimplification, not necessarily a valid point that can be extrapolated to every — or any — situation.
* After a string of early romantic failures involving men of that name, I refused to entertain the idea of getting involved with anyone named Jason. Though it’s no longer quite a deal-breaker, I reserve the right to remain somewhat irrational about that. I mean, much of the rest of the population won’t get involved with someone based on things like hair color or genital configuration which seems incredibly silly to me. Don’t I get to be picky for reasons that I may not be able to adequately explain, too?
** A lot of what I am and how I do polyamory is very much in line with what the people interviewed about being poly for various media outlets frequently dub harmful stereotyping.
Main image by Liz Henry