10 Things Monogamy can Learn from Polyamory- Part I

I’ve been married to the same person for 18 1/2 years. Neither of us have been married before and, in fact, each of us were each other’s first serious relationship. Throughout our lives together, we’ve made friends with people, and I’ve worked with individuals and couples, whose relationship structures differ wildly from our own. Over the past couple of years I’ve become interested in the polyamory community and what makes those relationships work. What I’ve learned from the people I’ve encountered in that community, from readings and listenings that I’ve done about it, are many values and principles that I believe have potential to improve all of life’s relationships, but, in particular, monogamous relationships.

Here are a few of them: 

1. Jealousy is human but should not be boss

This is an area that the poly community has done a lot of work in, which is probably not surprising given the nature of their relationship structures, inherent in the name ‘poly.’ I don’t consider myself a very jealous person, but when reading about working through jealousy in poly relationships, in particular, in the book, “The Ethical Slut” by Dossie Easton & Janet W. Hardy,* I was surprised to note that my jealousy issues came up in friendships when my friends would connect and I felt left out.

Easton and Hardy note that there’s nothing wrong with you if you experience jealousy when it comes to your partner and their relationships with others. It is however, up to you to take responsibility for these feelings and to determine what they are about.

In counselling monogamous couples, jealousy can wreak havoc in a relationship. It is important for people to consider what the are fears behind the jealousy. Check out Jealousy in Relationships for more on sorting through jealousy in your relationship.  Like all emotions (see 9 Myths about Emotions) no one can make you jealous, your perception of a situation, about what it means in light of your self worth or identity, can influence how you feel about it. You can also determine if what your partner shares with others is something that you don’t want shared outside of the relationship. This is something that will need to be worked out in an agreement (see Creating a Monogamy Agreement for Long Lasting Fidelity ).

The following is some GOLDEN advice from Sonja Stone, a friend of mine who is a member of the poly community, about jealousy:

“…one of my biggest and most valuable pieces of poly advice is actually about jealousy.  From very early on, I’ve treated jealousy as a signal from my body to me that there is an unmet need.  So if my partner is doing something and I’m experiencing jealousy when I see that, I remind myself that the urge is to focus on the partner, but truly, that never helps me.
What helps is if I focus inward and uncover my unmet need, describe it factually, and then decide if:
– that need is my own responsibility to fulfill,
– or if I am entitled to ask for help with it from my partner,
– or do I go to therapy to get help with it,
– or is it something friendship is better for?
For me, it is about 95% of me not taking responsibility for my own needs, and getting used to a partner filling it for me because it’s mutually satisfying ..until it isn’t something the partner wants to keep engaging in with me, or they need to reduce that interaction in some way.
So I’ve been jealous of:
– partners getting other partners and that takes away from my needs being met, – I’ve been jealous of partners going to school and having no time to fill that need with me,
– I’ve been jealous of them being sick.
A lot of folks don’t recognize jealousy as jealousy unless there’s triangulation with some potential homewrecker or whatever, but honestly I’ve gotten jealous over my partner’s need to take time away from my needs so they can prepare and eat a meal (that they share with me).
It’s helpful to really be accountable to oneself and truly make note of jealousy without judging it, and simply treating it as a signal that there’s some change in how a need is being met. “

2. You can’t own people

I think most of us get this and would agree with this statement, in theory, but we don’t always act like it. In monogamy there is often an implicit assumption that one’s boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife or partner belongs to us. This comes from the historical idea of a wife being part of one’s possessions with no rights of her own. In current practice, I often see this come through when people feel they can dictate another persons actions and that they have a right to do this.

These days, most people aspire to a relationship of equals where both people are autonomous and can trust that each other will voice any concerns or hopes. In much current research on what makes someone attractive to use, independence and autonomy is a high factor in any gender.

It is often fear that often leads to control. At these times we  forget that you cannot force someone to love and care for you, or to stay in the relationship, you can only tell them what you need and ask for what you want. This can feel risky, and some of us resort to passive aggressive communication if we fear our request will be denied. If you insist that it is not okay for someone to say no to your request, then, firstly, it is a demand, not a request, and secondly, it is not a partnership of equals who are respecting each other, it is something else.

3. All relationships change

A marriage may become a relationship of acquaintances or co-parents. Friends may become lovers. Parents of young children may one day be retirees who vacation separately. When we imagine someone we are close to being further away from us emotionally, psychologically or in actual physical proximity, it can provoke anxiety, particularly when that relationship is meeting our needs in its current state. While relationships in the poly community may encounter more transitions that in monogamous relationships (I’ve not found any data to determine this either way), all monogamous relationships will experience change at some point. Many of us fear that change means loss and that with loss we expect pain. In monogamy, there is an idea that if two people decide to no longer be intimate partners, the relationship is over and has failed. These fears sometimes result in an increase the coercion and control that are often utilized to sustain them. If we can look at changes in our relationships as times when we, or another, determine that the relationship in its current configuration is not meeting everyone’s needs then change might be seen as a solution and not as a failure.

In the poly community, relationship endings don’t have to mean that people become enemies. People can stop being intimate partners, even move out of each others lives and still wish the best for each other (see Making Divorce Better)

When speaking to Sonja Stone about endings in relationships, she notes that

“Most long haul polyamourous folks seem to value and create a formal agreement amongst themselves about how to transition a relationship from romantic to non-romantic.  This is also a queer thing.  I think it has to do with knowing you’re in a small community and wanting to preserve your own and your partners’ places in the community and avoid shunning or making community members choose.  A lot of poly and queer people do not practice this at all, but I think this approach is very healthy and respectful and an advanced relationship skill for anyone.

Some of this is a agreement and some of this is just choosing partners with boundaries that jive well with your own.”

4. Rules don’t protect relationships

If two people are not 100% committed to an agreement regarding their relationship, then setting a rule will not guarantee the both will stay in the relationship, or will abide by the set rule. In Creating a Monogamy Agreement for Long Lasting Fidelity – A Valentine Date Idea from your local couples’ therapist;), I spoke about sharing your hopes and fears with each other and basing agreements, primarily on hopes with decisions based on fears being finite and re-negotiable with time. I strongly suggest that the person with the fears determine what part of their fears are about their own work and what part is something that is evident in the relationship and might require renegotiating the relationship if an agreement cannot be reached.

In the book “More than Two, ” Franklin Veaux & Eva Rickert *encourage people to see all humans as autonomous and deserving of respect no matter what their role or position in your life. Of course these roles may have different levels of commitment based on various responsibilities, but there is no rule that will keep someone in love with you. If an agreement is made and you do not trust your partner to keep their end of the agreement, then there is work to do on trust, and more rules will not fix this.

Sonja Stone states:

“Monogamy cannot be a substitute for actually knowing what your own personal boundaries are and the negotiations that have to happen to define rules that are fair to each partner and also realistic and relevant.”

Also,

“It’s really helpful to define the shared value system in any relationship but likely especially in a monogamous partnership since you’re “stuck” with just the one person to share core values with.”

And this…

“Monogamy in and of itself won’t likely be a specific enough relationship goal to meet long term needs (there has to be more than simply wanting a spouse, to keep a partnership functional).”

5. Showing physical affection to others is not the same as cheating

We need more affection in our lives. Physical touch is lacking in Canadian culture and I believe that this is responsible, in part, for the high rates of depression in our society. We have over-sexualized physical contact between people and have become so afraid of infidelity, that we isolate ourselves from each other. There’s this idea that if I touch someone I, or they, might become sexually aroused and then we might be unable to control ourselves, resulting in cheating. In the poly community, there are agreements made between partners about who will or will not have sex with who. But there is a lot of room for affection that may or may not be sexualized without a lot of worry that this, in particular, would lead to infidelity because people have made clear agreements and choose to trust each other to keep them. There is, by the way, such a thing as ‘cheating’ in poly communities. This is when someone breaches their agreement with another person. These agreements are often very specific about the types of connections that will be reserved for each relationship.

Between friends, there can be concerns about misconstruing affection for an unwelcome sexual advance. We need to learn how to better express our desires and concerns. We also need to learn about power differentials in relationships and what this means when we do ask for physical affection. Check out Tea Party Consent Video for more on consent.

If you have more power than another person, or, if they perceive you as having more power, this might influence how  which might influence how safe they feel to express their own boundaries with you if you were to request physical affection. In these cases you will need to be consistent in listening closely to others needs and wants and let people know, overtly that you are accepting of a “no” with no hard feelings, when you ask anything from them, particularly physical affection. Some relationships are not appropriate to ask for physical affection, for example, if you are a boss, supervisor, coach or teacher. You will need to get those needs met in other relationships. Here are a few examples of relationships with power imbalances that will need to be attended to when asking for physical affection:

Male                                                                             Female
Person of Color                                                         White person
Able bodied                                                                Differently abled
A boss, supervisor, coach, teacher, etc.            Employee, athlete, student, etc.
Adult                                                                            Youth or Child

 

Stay tuned next week for part II of 10 Things Monogamy can learn from Polyamory, next week.

*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.

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