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Monogamy is Normal

Obviously, I know that nonmonogomy is not the norm. Then again, in terms of sexual and relationship paradigms, I’m nowhere close to normal (hell, the tagline to this blog is “sex after three standard deviations” for a reason). It’s not that monogamy lacks any appeal. The scripts are prewritten, it’s legally and socially sanctioned, and there’s a comparative simplicity to it. I wouldn’t be willing to do it: I’d be far too resentful of any partner who wanted me to give up the right to be attracted to, flirt with, fuck, or fall for anyone else (especially as only the second and third are under conscious control). But I will admit that trying to form and maintain multiple relationships can be stressful, difficult to make time for, emotionally risky, and a lot of work*.

When people have stress or problems, and are trying to figure out how to handle them, one of the things we do is look to role models. It’s a way of keeping ourselves from reinventing the wheel, repeating others’ mistakes, or investing a disproportionate amount of our resources on a solution that hasn’t been proven, at least anecdotally, to succeed. Role models give us hope.

There’s a serious dearth of role models for polyamorous relationships. There are lovely outspoken poly people like Franklin Veaux who provide a great deal of helpful information, but you have to go digging to find them. We don’t have public or historical figures or portrayals in media of polyamorous people just living normal lives and showing us how that works.

What’s worse, the models we do have for relationships are overwhelmingly and specifically anti-polyamory.

Many of the most famous stories in literature revolve around the threat outsiders pose to monogamous relationships. Helen’s marriage to Menelaus/affair with Paris is seen as so monstrous that nations go to war over it **(the fact that we call her Helen of Troy, not Helen of Sparta, suggests that we’ve collectively decided to side with Paris on that one) and don’t get me started on the disaster that comes out of Agamemnon stealing Achilles’ girl. Looking to philosophy, Aristophanes’ whole explanation of human sexuality in the Symposium hinges on the idea that the dyad or couple is the only possible desirable relationship configuration for either gay or straight people.

Then we have Tristan and Isolde, Guinevere and Lancelot–as with Helen, we root for the lover over the husband.

It’s the conflict that drives every shoujo anime I’ve seen–which girl will the protagonist choose? Twilight fans divided themselves into teams to root for either the vampire dude or the inexplicably hairless werewolf. I even have an erotic novel about a happily promiscuous woman who changes her entire personality and philosophy about relationships 3/4 of the way through the book because “love” and “monogamous fidelity” are apparently synonyms. Let me parse that: monogamous relationships are so ingrained that they infiltrate slutty porn***.

Then there’s music. How many songs about cheating do you know? How many love songs that hinge on the “one true love” premise? It’s especially important in music because so many people get twitterpated, thinking of a lover when a love song comes on the radio (or Pandora or what have you). When that association can’t match your relationship, when the very song that makes you want to send gushing text messages to someone is telling you that you can’t want anyone else, it’s hard not to internalize it on some level.

I’ve never seen polyamory portrayed favorably or normalized on television. The Poly in the Media blog tells me there’s a reality TV show called married and dating, but reality TV is typically about drama and dysfunction so I’m not holding my breath for it. In Lost Girl polyamory is literally the only sensible option: the protagonist is a succubus who needs to eat sexual energy to live, and can’t get enough from one person. So obviously she tries to be monogamous even against the advice of everyone not insane in the show because having multiple partners is what bad people do.

So that’s where nonmonogamy stands in terms of role models, as far as I know. The nonmonogamous paradigm is culturally invisible. This makes it easy to fall into traps of thinking about what could be a good relationship in dysfunctional ways. It’s normal, often automatic, to feel rejected when a partner would rather spend any given night with someone else. After all, when this happens in the movies it means the relationship is broken, right? Not having publicly visible role models to draw from means that we’re at risk of being drawn into the very paradigms we reject by choosing polyamory just by existing in a culture that makes monogamy the only norm. It makes it harder to have healthy nonmonogamous relationships. Not impossible, but hard. There is no way to reach a maintenance phase, if you will, a point at which behaviors that support one’s polyamory become automatic. There is a benefit to this: more conscious thought about decisions and behaviors in relationships prevents taking them for granted, encourages communication and evaluation. But it can also mean a huge pouring in of negative thoughts, of panic and paranoia, of desperately looking for the philosophy you know your paradigm is based on while every message around you insists that it isn’t true, can’t work. It’s enough to make most people feel a little crazy, at least on a bad day.

So if you wonder why poly people sometimes seem to never shut up about their special poly polyness****, it might help to remember that no matter how well grounded in reason and ethics we may try to be, we’re still very much social creatures. Even the introverts. Having reassurance that nonmonogamous paradigms aren’t crazy or hurtful is important, and we can’t get that passively the way monogamous folks can with their norms. We have to ask.

*I would argue that a monogamous relationship carries the same problems, but likely not to the same extent in most cases.

** all Odysseus’ fault.

*** It’s called My Prerogative, by Sasha White, and I am far less ashamed of reading smut than I am of even knowing what Twilight is.

****they really should, that shit gets annoying (says the sex blogger writing about nonmonogamy)

  1. October 22, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    AMEN to this post. I think most people don’t really think about or realize the way our society makes monogamy the default.

    I remember being in high school and having a guy friend that, one day, I somehow ended up making out with. And then we made out again the next time we saw each other (we were inexperienced teenagers, we were horny and curious, and neither of us had any other offers…). The third or fourth time we made out, I asked “So…does this mean we’re dating now?” I didn’t ask this because I’d lost interest in everyone else ever and was hinting that I wanted him all to myself. I asked it because I literally thought there was an unwritten rule that if you make out enough with someone, it automatically converts you into boyfriend/girlfriend, and I was trying to assess whether we’d reached that point yet.

    He said “…I guess so…?” and we ended up dating monogamously for a year or so, despite the fact that I was never really attracted to him and had many, many times when I was into other people and wanted to pursue them. It honestly never occurred to me that making out with a guy a few times didn’t obligate me to pair off with him, or that pairing off with someone when I constantly had stronger sexual and/or romantic feelings for other people was maybe not the best idea, or that I could have talked to this guy and invented a new kind of relationship instead of following a very fuzzy and uncertain set of “rules” that didn’t work for me.

    And yeah. It infuriates me when the big cliffhanger of a movie or tv show is “which potential partner will this person choose?” – usually our protagonist is already seeing both people in some capacity, and seems really upset about having to choose one, so why choose? Why not at least ask your suitors if they could just kind of get used to you seeing them both?

    Or, if the protagonist is a die-hard monogamous type, doesn’t the very fact that they can’t choose between two lovers indicate that neither lover is The One and it’s time to dump them both and keep looking?

    • gingernic
      October 22, 2013 at 6:44 pm

      Exactly! The problem with a social norm–any norm–isn’t what people do, it’s how they marginalize the people who don’t conform. Monogamy is a perfectly valid relationship model. The problem comes when I call my sister and she thinks “I have a boyfriend” has to mean “I’m cheating on or leaving Spouse.” It’s knowing that if any or all of my relationships end, the perception will be that it’s because nonmonogamy doesn’t work, not because that relationship didn’t work. People who are monogamous but perceive themselves as friends or supporters don’t understand that having to act like our relationships are healthier than everyone else’s (as opposed to just about the same level of fucked-up), being unable to squee about a date without a ten minute explanation about how it isn’t cheating, and knowing that advice from a monogamous person will not come from a perspective commensurate with polyamory all puts us in this very defensive, often self-critical mode pretty much all the time.

      It might be easy to read that paragraph and think nonmonogamy just isn’t worth it; I have enough anxiety already thankyouverymuch (Hell, I have enough for about 3/4 of a psych ward). The thing is, those relationships, when I’m with those people, connecting or talking or making out or having phenomenal sex, they mean so much more than being vaguely approved of by the hundreds people whose lives I pass through without touching every day. That approval can’t make me happy. A relationship might bring exhilaration, gigglefits, serious talks, or massive bouts of sitting in my car sobbing. It might make me happy, it might not. The fact that it can makes it worth trying.

      • October 22, 2013 at 9:21 pm

        It’s knowing that if any or all of my relationships end, the perception will be that it’s because nonmonogamy doesn’t work, not because that relationship didn’t work.

        I was texting with my newest boy today, talking about being poly, and he said that in his experience when he dates multiple people it always falls apart. I responded “In fairness, that would be your experience with monogamy, too.” I mean, in light of how he’s currently single and everything.

        It’s truly ridiculous how people try to blame a poly breakup on the relationship style and not the people. When a monogamous couple has a problem, however, folks will focus solely on the people involved, never the relationship style, because monogamy is the default and therefore functionally invisible. Nobody’s ever gonna say “Maybe your problem is that you’re not seeing any other people.”

        The thing is, those relationships, when I’m with those people, connecting or talking or making out or having phenomenal sex, they mean so much more than being vaguely approved of by the hundreds people whose lives I pass through without touching every day.

        Yes. Yes yes yes. This.

      • gingernic
        October 23, 2013 at 1:32 pm

        monogamy is the default and therefore functionally invisible. Nobody’s ever gonna say “Maybe your problem is that you’re not seeing any other people.”

        Ugh. The thing about this that makes me utterly miserable is that this affects how polyamorous partners approach relationships, too. Because I’m married, partners tend to think I’m not emotionally invested in them. There’s a tendency to assume I won’t mind–or even prefer–inattention and for them to never make plans (“I don’t want to impose on your time with Spouse,” as though Spouse is somehow entitled to all of my time). There’s an assumption that a break-up is less traumatic (“it’s not like you’re single”) and a habit of keeping distant. All of this makes perfect sense if you believe on some level that only monogamous relationships are real. It makes the relationship that much harder, and of course if I go to a friend for advice the answer is always “it’s not working, dump him, you’ll still have Spouse.”

        The problem is systemic and ideological. If nonmonogamous paradigms lack a conceptual framework, it’s a barrier to communication for nonmonogamous relationships. Relationships are communication and interaction. So when a breakup does happen and the inevitable helpful person says “well, nonmonogamy just doesn’t work,” I can’t help but want to throttle them because the very fact that they’re saying that it doesn’t work is a contributing factor to these things not working. (Also because it’s just cruel to “comfort” someone after a breakup by saying “it’s not you, it’s your entire perverted ideology and you’ll never be happy until you are normal like us.”)

        tl;dr: being nonmonogamous is like being three dimensional in Flatland. Nothing in society or language exists to accommodate or describe you, most people think you’re crazy, and everything would be so much easier for everyone if you would just stop going on about this sphere nonsense and act like a regular, respectable circle.

  2. April 17, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Well, this straight monogamous cisfemale is really glad you poly people won’t shut up about the special polyness. How else would we get to know about it? And it’s scary how much of it applies anyway. Or maybe I’ve been lucky to find people who write well about it. http://slutphd.com/ got me started.

    Let me parse that: monogamous relationships are so ingrained that they infiltrate slutty porn***.


    Have you seen Maymay’s recent post, Heterosexuality is a fetish. Why isn’t it in the DSM? I’m still trying to wrap my head about some of the stuff he says in other posts, but this one is on the money.

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