Valentines’ Day is coming up, and because of a fantastic quirk of scheduling I’ll be spending it with basically everyone I’m currently dating, at Dark Odyssey: Winter Fire (link NSFW). This is not everyone’s idea of a great Valentine’s Day, I know. My sweeties may have other priorities that night, be it a new crush, an out-of-town lover returned for the weekend, or a longtime primary partner. But I am very much looking forward to being the center of a big cuddly loving poly group and seeing what deeper connections the weekend brings me.
That’s how I do polyamory, or poly for short, but there are a million different ways. Judging by the media interest, poly is trendy right now. I believe that poly might be right for a lot of people who had either never heard of it before, or didn’t believe that it was something that they could actually create in their own lives – until they saw that other people were successfully doing it. That’s the way it was for me, at least. I still remember the day I read in the Savage Love archives that ethical non-monogamy was fairly common, I could find other people who also identified that way, and that if someone flipped out, they probably weren’t a good person for me to date anyway.
Most poly people, I imagine, have an experience of monogamy that left a bad taste in their mouths. I see my friends’ relationships continually hamstrung by things that would never be an issue in mine because of polyamory (“How do I know where this is going?!” Um… ask?) They find monogamous dating hard, and can’t imagine why I would want MORE of it; I find poly dating easy, because I’m surrounded by attractive, feminist friends with good communication skills. It’s tempting for polys to conclude that poly is inherently better than monogamy. But I think there are actually two things going on here. There’s the sex, and then there’s the communication.
The standard cultural narrative at the time I hit puberty was that you could not talk about your feelings with the person you had them for, because terrible things would happen. Instead, you had to engineer elaborate scenarios to impress your beloved so that they would decide they were in love with you, make a grand declaration, kiss, and roll the credits. Or there would be a breakup where you never told your beloved what they meant to you. Or they would randomly leave you for someone else and you’d have no idea why. Perhaps this was just the way teenagers approached relationships, but it was reinforced by the media, by our lack of a road map from our parents, by the little dramas played out by our slightly older peers.
When I found poly, I found an excuse to talk. I could no longer follow the script of silence. The first few times I asked the important questions (“Would you like to make out?” “I want to continue to see other people, are you cool with that?” “What were the results of your last STI test?”) they were hard, but I immediately noticed a huge improvement in the amount of power I felt I had in the relationship. And I eventually found that, the more experienced someone was with poly, the more willing they were to use their words as well, and the more fulfilling the relationship was. I thought I would regret cutting monogamous people out of my dating pool, but I quickly started to find their inability or refusal to use their words unattractive. The whole question of how many people we wanted to have sex with, respectively, seemed like a secondary issue.
Polys don’t have a monopoly on communication abilities, of course. Slowly my monogamous friends are outgrowing their fear of talking about feelings, and discovering concepts like “Continue to ‘date’ your partner even after you’ve committed to them!” and “Have your own friends and hobbies!” and “You deserve a fulfilling sex life!” They’re having conversations about whether monogamy is actually important to them — sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. Whether or not those conversations are prompted by the increasing visibility of poly people or just by the fact that the silence script is an untenable way to run an adult relationship, this feels new and improved.
Apparently there are also poly people who attempt to recreate the script, just with more people. There’s this idea that you need lots of “rules” to make poly work – as though you only need to have one hard conversation, then conduct the relationship forevermore based on where the other person’s comfort zone was then. You write a new script; it’s less silent, but it’s still a script, substituting for ongoing communication. That kind of poly never appealed to me, because again, the sex with lots of people was a sideshow to the brave and honest communication that I found in the poly community.
I suppose maybe if our culture had had a different script, my boot camp in adult relationship negotiation wouldn’t have come through the lens of ethical non-monogamy. I probably would have ended up poly anyway, because I just don’t value monogamy and that would have come up in any honest conversation. But the pull of the script is strong. People have spent their whole lives feeling like they don’t really know their partner, or couldn’t trust them not to cheat, or had only one shot at love. I’d like to believe that poly’s surge in popularity helped make it cool to negotiate with your romantic partner, no matter how many of them you have.