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Thursday, August 7, 2014

The game of mono-poly

Hello lovely bloggers,

I'm in a difficult place right now with my emotionally-closest partner.  We've been in an ethical, mutually-open relationship since the beginning of our relationship, but have been fighting extensively the past couple months.  It's quite complicated, but I think it boils down to:  he does NOT identify as "poly," while I do.

We're working things out as best we can, but our discussions are often one-sided, with myself on the "defensive" end.  (I tend to be soft spoken, scared of intense arguing, verbally "freeze up" when I'm upset.)  So my question is, do you have any advice on how to respond to these types of "anti-poly" sentiments/questions?

- Why do you need more than one partner?  Why am I not enough for you?
- Why are you making polyamory more important than our relationship?  (I'll admit that I have a lot of NRE with the poly community I've recently discovered in NYC, because it's been so wonderful to find other people who think like I do). 
- Why do you talk SO MUCH about poly-everything?  (I've been doing this out of defense of my feelings, and doing this more will just make the situation worse!)
 - Refusal to read anything I've suggested in the past (for example, The Ethical Slut), because it's disrepectful towards him
 - Why would you want to build a family/support network with lovers?  Why can't you do that with non-sexual friends?  (Also implying that I'm "trading sex for emotional support")
 - You feel "compersion" when I date someone else, but I think you're just happy it lessens your responsibility in our relationship.

We're in therapy, but even there I have a hard time standing up for myself and my beliefs without hitting him over the head with "poly-everything."  Any thoughts on how I can guide us towards our similarities instead of focusing on our differences? 

Stuck Playing Defense

Dear D-Fence,
Thank you for writing such an important and comprehensive question! This is certainly an issue that many poly people run up against, since we're obviously in the minority (for now!) and we often find ourselves dating monogamous people and trying to make it work.

It's difficult to give advice that keeps people from fighting when they have such divergent views on something that is so central to a relationship. Bravo to you for seeking therapy from what I hope is a poly-friendly therapist. And I certainly empathize with your differing communications styles, since I am also someone who is soft-spoken and tries to avoid conflict in relationships.

The best way I can think of to help is to offer a few options on responding to these questions in ways that I hope will stimulate discussions and not spark conflagration. Most of my suggested talking points are structured in an attempt to 1) make your partner see his position from your viewpoint and 2) reinforce your own agency in the relationship. So here goes...

- Why do you need more than one partner?
  • No one "needs" to be in a relationship. If you "need" your partner, then you have a very different kind of relationship than if you "want" them in your life. 
  • We do have "wants" and "needs" in our relationships, so let's talk about those. What do you want and need out of our relationship? What do you need from me to feel cherished and valued? What am I doing right, and how would exclusivity change that?
  • I want the kind of relationship where I can both be wholly myself AND a part of your life. Part of who I am is a person who makes emotional and sometimes sexual connections with other people and shares my love with them. Being in a relationship shouldn't mean I have to give up that essential part of who I am.
  • Asking me to give up people I love would be like asking Mozart to give up playing the harpsichord and the violin because you only love his piano playing.
Why am I not enough for you? 
  • This question assumes there is a limit to how much love we can have in our lives. Love isn't like food - our capacity to love isn't an appetite that needs to be satiated. We all have an infinite capacity to love and be loved.
  • There is no real reason why the words "love" and "enough" need to be used together. Instead of thinking of love as a weight that you must carry, think of it as the air you breathe.
  • We love multiple parents, siblings and children throughout our lives - we never put limits on those kinds of love. Other than convention and reasonable constraints on time and resources, why should romantic love be different?
  • Do you define love by the absence of desire to love others, as in "If you love me, you shouldn't want to love anyone else"? How does it make sense that love should be defined by the absence of desire? 
  • Isn't loving someone important enough to you that you'd want to experience it as much as possible in a lifetime? If our relationship is about supporting each other's growth as human beings throughout life, we shouldn't be limiting the range of human experiences we can both have, together and separately.
- Why are you making polyamory more important than our relationship?
  • Clearly, monogamy is just as important to you as polyamory is to me. The difference is that you don't have to talk about monogamy because it's the default (or privileged) relationship style in our society.
  • It must seem like I'm doing all the talking, but that's because monogamy is the privileged relationship style (for a easy-to-understand explanation on privilege as it's used here, read this article). It's like a white person saying people of color are talking 'so much' about civil rights, or a straight person saying they are 'tired of hearing' all the queer people talk about gay marriage.
  • Polyamory is important to me because my relationships are important to me. I don't want to just accept the default relationship style just because everyone else is doing it. I want a relationship with intention
  • When I talk about polyamory, I'm putting the work into making this relationship work for both of us. If you're not talking as much about monogamy, maybe it's because you're making assumptions about what our relationship looks like, rather than helping me custom-tailor it for us.
- Why do you talk SO MUCH about poly-everything?
  • I'm talking about it because it's an important part of my identity and I want to share it with you because you are my partner. You are important to me and our relationship is very important to me, so I want to put as much energy into it as I can to make it successful. That's the why. 
  • Now let me ask you - why do you object to me talking about who I am and how we're going to make this relationship work? Because all relationships, poly or mono, have a better chance at success if everyone feels safe to express themselves.
- Refusal to read anything I've suggested in the past (for example, The Ethical Slut), because it's disrepectful towards him
  • How does withholding knowledge and information about an important part of my identity show respect to you? If you want me to respect your beliefs and ideals, then you should respect mine. 
  • If I were Jewish and you were Muslim, would you refuse to learn about the Torah? 
  • Only by fully understanding each other's beliefs and values will we be able to find common ground and understand each other's viewpoints.
- Why would you want to build a family/support network with lovers?  Why can't you do that with non-sexual friends?  (Also implying that I'm "trading sex for emotional support")
  • Why wouldn't you want people around you who love you? Why exclude lovers from your support network? 
  • Friends are an important part of a support network, of course. But sometimes friends become lovers; lovers often become friends. Why draw boundaries at all? Is there any logical reason to have rules on who gets to be in the clubhouse?
- You feel "compersion" when I date someone else, but I think you're just happy it lessens your responsibility in our relationship.
  • Compersion is a real thing. The only expert on how someone is feeling is the person having those feelings. Telling someone else what they REALLY feel is insulting and denigrates their agency as a human being.
  • What "responsibility" do you feel is lessened by having multiple partners? What are you expecting from me that I can't deliver if I'm dating others?
  • If the answer is something like, "it makes me feel special that what we're doing together you're only doing with me" then is there a way to create those special feelings by doing other things exclusively? or does it have to be the whole relationship enchilada?
Also, there is an excellent resource on poly/mono dating and relationships on Franklin Veaux's More than Two website that is much more comprehensive and it will give you lots of context for future discussion. 

And finally, I want to thank Puck, my frubble* of almost six years, for vis help in answering these, and leave you with vis parting thought - Remember that your partner is not your enemy. You fight your enemy but you work WITH your partner toward a common goal.

* frubble: British synonym for compersion, used by Mischa and Puck to describe their intentional family relationship, characterized by mutual support and emotional safe harbor for each other to find more love in our lives

Leon, over to you - whatcha got?

Damn, but that's a great response. I, however, will take a different tack with mine.  My current primary is also monoamorous (isn't that a much more appropriate term than monogamous?), and I have a long history dating emotionally-significant partners who have sworn they supported my polyamorous lifestyle, but their jealous, possessive, and argumentative actions betrayed their words.  So take it with whatever size grain of salt you like, but my takeaway from your situation is that you are likely incompatible as long-term partners, and no amount of discussion will fix it.

Which brings me to one of the hardest but most important lessons I've ever had to learn: loving someone, even passionately or wholeheartedly, does NOT mean you should be dating them. 

The questions your partner asks sound sinkingly familiar to me, I've gotten them repeatedly in my prior mono/poly relationships.  My clear impression is not that these are questions asked altruistically and out of genuine curiosity, but rather out of passive-aggression, guilt inducement, and backhanded attempts to argue you out of your polyamorous worldview.  As a result, I don't think you'll each get much benefit out of therapy, or logically discussing these points, simply because I'd be willing to bet you and this particular partner have vastly different values, goals, and visions of what a happy long-term future looks like.  I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I'd wager you'd be better off as either asexual friends, or classic friends with benefits, but no long-term romance.  It feels great to be wanted, and to share affection with someone with whom you share attraction - but none of that is a substitute for compatibility.

You're fighting because with the NRE wearing off, you're realizing you each have different expectations of where this relationship should go.  I'd also be willing to bet the two of you haven't discussed any long-term goals, or if you have then one or both of you hasn't been honest. (It's quite likely the dishonest person doesn't KNOW they've been dishonest, as their good intentions and wishful thinking may have clouded their judgment.)  It's terribly frustrating to be completely candid and forthcoming about our polyamory, but have our partners eventually crack under the pressure of pretending to enjoy or support something they genuinely don't believe and would never want for themselves, except for the fact they were in love with us and were willing to do almost anything to make it work.

For the record, lifelong mono/poly romantic relationships are possible, but extremely difficult to pull off successfully.  It's quite hard to balance such an obvious inequality in attention and activity, but if both parties involved GENUINELY WANT THAT SHAPE OF RELATIONSHIP (note: mutual attraction, personality, and sexual compatibility are irrelevant here, I'm only talking about one partner seeing multiple partners and the other seeing none and both parties preferring that arrangement) then it can work splendidly.

By way of contrast (and a little schadenfreude - sorry), my current primary doesn't ask questions like the ones you've outlined. She and I have lots of open and honest communication, and she doesn't give the impression of jealousy or possessiveness at all. She'll ask daily about my other partners and our dates because she wants information and to stay in the loop, not to force herself to accept the status quo or pretend to be supportive because that's what's expected (while mentally gritting teeth the whole time).  She's never antagonistic or needlessly argumentative; we have our disagreements but they're respectful and reflect her genuine interests rather than an intent to change me.  And while there are obviously things I wish were different in our relationship (as I'm sure she does as well), we have enough of a long-term match in where we see this going that I feel comfortable calling her my girlfriend despite the poly/mono challenges. 

I'm sorry, SPD, and I wish I had more upbeat thoughts for you. You can definitely try to reason with each other, as Mischa and Puck have suggested some very thoughtful discussion points. But my bet is that this relationship is doomed as a romance, as you can't win an emotional argument with logic.  I hope I'm wrong and wish you luck.  Let us know how it turns out.


  1. Hello everyone,

    I'm the submitter of this question. First, I want to give a huge THANK YOU to Mischa, Puck, and Leon for your thoughtful responses. Lots to think about!

    Also, I want to make clear to anyone reading this post, that my partner in question does not identify as "monogamous." He has had past experience with non-monogamy, and in the past he has happily loved more than one romantic partner simultaneously. Though he is flexible regarding relationship structure, it is clear that we have some basic differences in our views on relationships and we need to figure out if we can both be happy together long-term.


  2. Hey SPD!

    Thanks for the clarification. One can be monoamorous but interested in open relationships, although you say that your partner has loved multiple people, which implies that it's less a problem of mono-poly and more of possessivenes.

    I do think talking clearly and openly about what each of you wants out of relationships, what each of you is willing to give, and what kind of life you want to build (whether separately or together) is the only way that you have a shot of either maintaining the relationship or parting amicably if you realize the incompatibility is too great.

    Much much luck to you, SPD. (And virtual hugs to both you and your partner(s)--this stuff is hard to figure out sometimes!)

    1. Hi Robin,

      Definitely agree it's important to clearly communicate what each of us wants from and can give to a relationship. In my particular situation, I think there is a large amount of overlap between our wants/gifts/ideas for the future, but we need to figure out if this overlap between my non-traditional views and his flexible but somewhat more traditional views will be "enough" for us long-term. There are definitely some possessive feelings, and the situation was especially intense because we're both dealing with multiple significant changes changes to our lives/relationship structures. Hopefully therapy can help us reach the right compromises, and come out stronger on the other side!

      I wanted to ask this question because I feel like a lot of the discussions/arguments we were having could easily occur between mono/poly people, or especially someone trying to open up a previously monogamous relationship. So, I hope all the insightful answers can help someone else out there having similar issues.

      Thank you for the well wishes! :)


    2. It just occurred to me that not everyone knows that "Puck" is Robin's nickname (as in Shakespeare's play, "A Midsummer Night's Dream). Just wanted to clarify that :)

  3. This post came across my radar, and really wanted to respond. Even though, as SPD points out, their question was not so much a mono-poly relationship question, the respones by Mischa and Leon were referring that type of situation, so I'd like to get into that. I feel like the perspective of the mono-partner in a mono-poly relationship may be interesting to add here, and that is my perspective.
    I'm here to say: it can be done, and it can be satisfying. After nearly 15 years happily together, of which the relationship was open for 10 years, we are living proof of it. My partner first introduced me to polyamory, shortly after he had discovered that 'he was not alone' and that 'more people felt like he did'. It was hard for me, it was hard for him. I had all the questions raised above. And he did not have all the answers. The questions I had were genuine. They were there because the whole way I had thought our relationship worked was turned upside down. We had to find the answers together. Not just through words (and we sure talked a lot) but more so through actions.
    Being patient with each other, not jumping to conclusions, being willing to explore the other person's mindset, being willing to challenge your own thoughts and preconceptions. Our relationship is stronger than it ever would have been if its fundamentals had never been shaken so deeply. Now, 10 years later, my partner has had several other partners. Some very intimate and very much about love, others more casual. There has been some polydrama, but so much less than I anticipated. Some practical stuff:
    - we started out with a whole bunch of rules. It helped me to trust him again. It helped him to show me that he was not going to cross any boundaries. As times went on, more and more rules went out the window. The 'list' is pretty short now, and mostly about safe sex.
    - At first, we thought this would only work if things were 'equal', meaning I had to be interested in multiple partners too. It was such a relief when we figured out that that is now what equality is about. It is about getting your needs met, and we were both achieving this in different ways.
    - Whenever we hit some polydrama, we both try to figure out where it comes from. Most of the times, it has very little to do with the other partner, and everything to do with our own insecurities or 'bagage'.
    - Don't let others define you. I have had responses from friends saying I was being such a dependant woman who was 'letting him do this'. Or that I must have very low self esteem to 'give into this'. It can be tough to stand up to that. In some cases I did, in some I just let it slide, and a lot of people from who I can guess their response, are simply not in the loop. I chose my battles.

    Anyway, a long response, hope it was worth the read. Good luck SPD in making your situation work for you. I concur with Robin: it is hard to figure out sometimes.


    1. Hi FK, It's very inspirational to me that you and your partner had very different ideas/feelings, but were able to work through it and create a long and happy relationship. :)

      I totally feel your point on "not letting others define you" - I was once in a happily open relationship that ended because my partner couldn't deal with the level of judgment he was receiving from family and friends.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences!

  4. I also am relieved to read stories about mono/poly relationships working. I've been with my partner for 3 years now. He is poly and I am mono, but open minded and have dated a couple of people during our relationship. It's been incredibly challenging for both of us. Right now, I'm struggling because he is spending Burning Man with someone new. But whenever I feel like I cant go on, I think of how much he loves me and values me. We communicate a lot, and I trust him completely. I'm learning so much about myself along the way and I'm constantly faced with my own insecurities and jealously. It's not always easy, but I think it's still worth it.

  5. Now that I'm back myself from Burning Man and am checking out last month's column, I'm so glad for the responses, and the stories of others' experiences.

    Sometimes outsiders telling you there's a problem with your nontraditional relationship means there is a problem, but sometimes they really don't understand the dynamics as well as you do. It follows that sometimes your own gut telling you there's a problem means there is one, but sometimes YOU don't understand the dynamics as well as you think you do. :)

    EVERY relationship is different. Mischa and I do the best we can re: applying advice to described fact patterns, but there's no substitute for open and honest multilateral communication in our relationships, both expressing what we want and being able to actively listen to our partners' expressed wants.

    Good luck to all!