The topic of last Saturday’s broadcast, titled “Do open relationship ever work?“, was successful non-monogamous stories. This notion, I was told, clashes with Lucy’s personal experience as a psychotherapist, according to which non-monogamy is generally a harmful experience for a couple’s romantic and sexual life, one which does not lead to long-term stability, deep intimate connection and relationship satisfaction. Ultimately, she maintains, all forms of non-monogamy boil down to one thing: ‘permission to cheat‘ disguised as laissez faire attitude.
I began addressing this point, which I wholeheartedly agreed with, albeit for slightly different reasons: there has been a lot of misuse of poly vocabulary as of late by people who are, ultimately, just out there to fuck around; and yes, any type of non-monogamy presents a set of challenges that the majority of us, even those who come to poly with the best intentions, simply do not (yet) have the skillset to address. Therefore, in a sense, I was hardly surprised by Lucy’s account.
Lucy and I moved on to talk about the complex rules that non-monogamous couples often put in place to limit aspects of each other’s non-monogamous lifestyle. These agreements take the shape of prescriptions such as “you cannot fall in love with them”, “you can only have sex with them if I am involved too”, “no more than a date every two weeks”, “you can see men but not women”, “don’t ask, don’t tell”, “you cannot go on holiday together”, “you can only celebrate my birthday”, and the like. Lucy sees these rules as both a necessity and a curse, and thus as a strategy destined to fail: boundaries, she explained, are necessary to protect one’s fragile emotional self, yet they take too much emotional work to produce a happy and stable relationship. On this point too, I found myself agreeing with the host, once again for different reasons: in my experience, rules are a couple’s attempt at maintaining some degree of control over each other’s romantic and sexual life. Unless used temporarily and in an appropriate context (e.g. while starting a new relationship or while testing boundaries at a play party) and unless they take the form of a request rather than an imposition (e.g. “remember to add a calendar entry once you have agreed a date” or “please send me a text if your date is sleeping over”), rules quickly turn toxic. The inability to go beyond control mania – an expression of our fear of loss which only finds breeding ground, rather than quenching, in a permanent set of rules erected to make us feel safe – is perhaps the main reason why many couples fail at sustaining a non-monogamous lifestyle. Rather than facing the hurt and processing the pain from our partner’s actions once we have agreed to let them roam the world free, we try to delay and slow down that process as much as possible. The assumption is that setting rules is going to make things easier with time, “once we have built the antibodies”. There is some truth in that, and that is why I said rules should be used carefully. Rules work best when they are not a diktat or a deal-breaker, and when they have an expiry date – or at least are revised regularly. Very often, too rigid a set of rules fosters complacency and produces a false sense of security which prevents the non-monogamous relationship from reaching a deeper, more intimate, more mature stage. In other words: do not be afraid to set your partner completely free.
Creating rules which limit a partner’s ability to express themselves, and to grow unboundedly and organically as an individual, equates to asking them to put an abstract notion of allegiance to your relationship before the often hard and complex reality of their evolving needs. These two different definitions of commitment (which we may call the “idealistic” and the “pragmatist” approach) are both legitimate, and ultimately a matter of individual preference – as long as all partners understand the challenges they are setting themselves up against in each scenario.
A further topic I wish I had had the time to introduce is the notion – provocative to some – that relationships should not be the result of compromise, but rather that they should be about finding people who can:
(a) accept us as we are right now in our entirety;
(b) contemplate with us scenarios of changing needs (from the idea of new living arrangements to the idea of extra-pair sexual liaisons, new partners, and the like);
(c) develop with us a framework where ongoing change can be discussed and can happen.
By compromise, here, I do not mean the likes of “picking a boyfriend who is very sweet and charismatic although short-tempered and not as cultured as I thought I would want him to be”; rather, I am referring to a broad scenario in which “every partner gets a bit of what they want, while giving up other things they hold dear”. This could be, in our case, the situation of a stay-at-home mother holding on to a loveless marriage for sake of her children and of having a roof on top of her head.
Change, I told Lucy, is unavoidable and cannot be pushed back against or cherry-picked: it can only be accepted and processed – it cannot be compromised with. Compromise consumes you. Love that survives change is what makes a relationship last. It is this process that gives a relationship depth and real intimacy, and makes it precious and worth fighting for. As humans, we have limited power over change. It depends on both our conscious actions and our unpredictable evolution as individuals on the one hand – and on the mirror experience undergone by our partner(s) on the other. While I do believe that love and potential partners are abundant, how many people would be able to keep loving you as you evolve through life (maybe into a very different individual from the one they met!) – and not because they swore an oath to be by your side till death do you apart, but because they actually happen to be growing organically with you?
In this respect, Lucy seemed to uphold the common view that change in our partner’s romantic and sexual preferences should be met decisively with a breakup. The argument goes along the lines of “Nothing forces you to put up with your spouse: if your partner is no longer giving you what you want, or is asking you to accept ‘bizarre’ attitudes which involve ‘compromising your values’, you can always divorce them.” To my ears, this sounds a bit immature. I am not saying that everyone should put up with the new non-monogamous tendencies of their partner, of course. By all means, walk away from that relationship if you know that is not your cup of tea! However, the suggestion that one should reach for the ‘EJECT’ button the moment their partner invalidates their mental boyfriend/girlfriend checklist looks to me like the recommending to lock oneself up in a fantasy world where they can deny change and their fundamental lack of control over events, and where everything is exactly as we they want it, all the time, with no effort on their part to adapt to a less self-indulgent but more authentic reality. I had a bit of a hard time reminding myself that authenticity is not necessarily the metric everyone uses when building their relationships – many people choose their partner based on a snapshot of that person’s characteristics after the first few dates and, crucially, will not put up with anything that diverges from the initial criteria they set off with (during a break-up, I was once emphatically told by a monogamous partner “the person I fell in love with has been long dead“). I guess blind checklist loyalty is also a legitimate option on the table, as yet another way of disengaging from partners whose path we cannot follow. Once again, make sure you check with yourself (and with your partners) whether you are relationship ‘idealists’ or relationship ‘pragmatists’, and choose your theatre accordingly.
You cannot control your partner’s sexual and romantic destiny. As a ‘pragmatist’, I also maintain you should not attempt to. On the contrary, you should try and foster an environment in which change can be discussed freely. If some of your partner’s choices, desires and needs are too much for you to bear, you should not ask him or her to choose between those and you: you can and need to walk away from the relationship. Repression only induces an ‘elephant in the room’ effect, fosters lying and resentment and will eventually lead to the breakdown of the relationship anyway, with outcomes ranging from passive aggressiveness to outright cheating.
Ultimately, whether we identify as relationship ‘idealists’ or as ‘pragmatists’, we must all put up with the fact that change is inevitable: as we move through life, we will change, our partner(s) will change. We will discover new things about ourselves and we will evolve as individuals, sometimes greatly, sometimes subtly. The type and pace of change experienced by some may be less marked, and that often seems to be a key ingredient in making monogamous relationships a success. I just wonder how much of such ‘gentle change’ is in reality the tip of an iceberg of staleness, self-imposed for fear that change will mean having to give up the person we love. “Is this not a loaded gun pointed to our heads?”, I teased Lucy.
I continued by introducing the idea that, contrary to Lucy’s earlier remark on rules being a necessity to prevent a complete relationship meltdown, the game-changer is precisely facing the challenges of non-monogamy soon, together and openly, rather than digging trenches, erecting walls and diluting the process as much as possible. Reeling in from an emotional shock and realising that the person I loved was still there and that what made our relationship great and unique had not changed is what convinced me that polyamory was the right choice for me.
On the other hand, as simplistic as it may sound, if your partner chose to disengage after a similar experience, it most likely means that a non-monogamous relationship is not for them – which is also fine. Like Lucy, several authors seem to struggle to understand why someone would inflict so much pain upon themselves and sacrifice an otherwise successful relationship. The idea that this person may have reached a point where they – reluctantly – stand ready to lose the one they love in order to be themselves appears mind boggling. Their conclusion is, always and unavoidably, the same one: they are morally bankrupt, selfish and do not know what true love is. Judgemental, much?
I guess sticking with a partner who expects us to deliver the same performance with the cadence of a washing machine (on pain of hitting the kerb, figuratively and literally) is a commendable act of martyrdom (“This is not what I signed up for. I want my boyfriend back!“, I was famously told by the same partner on a different occasion.) To each their own.
My answer and token of advice is: if romantic and sexual openness truly matter to you, you should not try to give them up and prioritise your bond with a specific person just because your heart is set on them. A level of burning self-awareness such that you are literally ready to sacrifice the person you hold dearest is not easily reached. What brought you there must be pretty important: does giving up on it in favour of ‘business as usual’ sound like a good idea? Chances are, it will come back to haunt you and you will be back to square one.
Lucy also wondered why people who self-identify as polyamorous “cannot be happy with just one partner”. I explained that that is inaccurate, and a common misconception of what polyamory means. Although people come to polyamory for all sorts of reasons, polyamory does not prescribe that you must have more than one romantic and/or sexual relationship: it is the awareness of and explicit accounting for that possibility happening that matters. In other words: you do not need multiple partners to identify as polyamorous, and polyamory is not the condition of having multiple romantic partners or constantly be looking for more. In my case, although for several years I was in more than one concurrent romantic and sexual relationship, lately I have been happily polyamorous with just one romantic partner. Although totally open to the idea of further romantic partners, I am not looking for more.
Answering Lucy’s question as to why this lifestyle choice works for me, I explained that polyamory allows me to connect with the people around me as I see fit, to explore those connections if I choose to do so, and to see where that interaction leads. Friendships, mentorships, sexual partnerships, even business partnerships, are found this way. And, if and when that happens, romantic partnerships too. It is important to distinguish between infatuation and romantic love, and that is why sustainable romantic relationships emerge only in the long term. Shopping for new partners for the sake of “doing polyamory” can be incredibly dangerous for you and for your current relationship(s).
That is part of the reason why I am reluctant to brand myself as ‘polyamorous’. While polyamory is undoubtedly the relationship framework which works for me today, I have no idea what will work for me in 2, 5, 10 years’ time. If life taught me anything, it is that I might be a very different person from now. I may no longer identify as polyamorous and, although a degree of openness is important to me, be fundamentally monogamous. What I do not think will ever fade is my awareness of change and of the importance to factor that in in every relationship narrative. That is why I would rather say I do “conscious relationships” than identify as ‘polyamorous’, ‘monogamous’ or whatever I may be or have been in any given phase of my evolution as an individual.
My intervention ended with a slightly surprised-sounding Lucy saying “Thank you, so it’s all about authenticity.” Odd, I told myself: I thought all relationships were about authenticity. How wrong I was.