Let’s Talk about Polyamory (a rant)

There have been a lot of articles floating around lately about how polyamory is gaining speed and open relationships might actually become the norm in x number of years. (See here, here, and here, for reference).  Though I’d beg to differ and think a lot of the journalists writing these articles are probably not involved in the lifestyle and don’t really know enough about it to ask the critical questions, so they are getting a lot of this “polyamory marketing/PR” from their subjects. And are also probably late to the party.

Many of my friends and I have experimented with open relationships and polyamory over the years and the model has failed for us, some have chosen to depart and go back to monogamy, some haven’t, but the fact remains that the idea isn’t “all that and a bag of chips” after all and usually doesn’t work for sustaining relationships in the long term.

A number of my friends have asked me what my personal beef with polyamory is about, so I thought I’d share it here. I was in a three-year open relationship with a trans woman. It was my first relationship with a woman and my first attempt at an open one. She was the one that requested it. Prior to meeting me, she had just gotten out of an eight-year-long monogamous relationship/marriage, she was new to New York, she had recently started transitioning, so she was at a point where she wanted/needed to experiment with her sexuality more and didn’t want our relationship to thwart that, which I understood so I said OK.

We started out by occasionally making out with other people at parties, but were mostly very much in love and committed to one another. Ultimately, I wound up taking more advantage of the open relationship deal and was seeing other guys more than she was seeing other people. And, for a while, it worked fine. I would see one other guy (or person) once a month or even less frequently and we spent most of our time with each other (and eventually lived together). But later I met one guy that I fell for inexplicably and started spending a lot of time with. He was on the poly scene, went to sex parties, met me on that circuit and all, but he told me all kinds of stories about how much he wanted to be with me, wished we could be together, wished he could be my boyfriend, etc. That even though he was on the scene, he wanted to eventually be monogamous or “monogamish,” as Dan Savage would call it. And, stupidly, I believed him and was falling in love with him. So I eventually broke up with my girlfriend (it’s not as simple as it sounds, it took months of conversations and tears and moving out and splitting of our stuff and expensive therapy). And, lo and behold, as soon as I was free to be with the guy, he ran for the hills.

Additionally, he was still seeing other women (which I knew, and was seeing other guys too), but it turned out that he hadn’t informed them that he had already been seeing me for a while. And when I called him on it, he decided he didn’t want to tell these other women anything because he feels like “we’re not connecting and there is something missing” (after months of telling me and, anyone who would listen, about how “in love” he was and how much he wanted to be with me and “boo hoo, I’m head over heels over someone that’s taken”) So he turned out to be a jerk/classic “in love with the chase” case. That’s the thing, though, a lot of guys on the scene are essentially players that hide behind the “poly” label, which makes it easy for them to do so. I’ve heard dozens of similar stories about other guys doing this sort of thing from women on the scene.

Having now lost two relationships, more importantly a three-year-long one that meant a lot to me, moved apartments, and, a few months later, lost my job (yeah, that happened, too), I was devastated.  Though  as much as I like to blame what happened on “that player,” there were other issues involved and we all made mistakes. First of all, I was never sure about the whole open relationship experiment to begin with, though I was willing to try it. I did it because I loved my girlfriend and thought it wouldn’t be fair to say no when she requested it, which is, by the way, another problem with the lifestyle. People are essentially “not allowed” to say no. It’s assumed that you’re being immature, childish, jealous, possessive, insecure, etc., which are all unattractive qualities, duh! And as we got further into it, I was actually never comfortable with seeing or hearing about my partner fuck or date other people.  I had suggested we call off this arrangement a number of times, but she convinced me not to, so we kept going and eventually I thought, “if we’re going to keep doing it, I might as well get the most out of it.” And the rest was history.

Additionally, I was never satisfied with the sexual relationship we had. My ex is a beautiful person, inside and out, and we are still very good friends and the relationship worked well on many other levels, but sexually it was lacking for me. All the people I had dated before her were men and, by comparison (perhaps an unfair one, I know), the sex with my girlfriend didn’t have as much “oomph” or frequency as the sex I was used to (and loved) with men, so I sought that out elsewhere and began to find it in other partners. When I met that guy (let’s call him Vronsky), I found the kind of sex I wanted as well as (the illusion) of the kind of commitment I wanted, so I bolted. Ultimately, I wasn’t being honest with myself or my partners as far as what my relationship needs or desires were, but I’m doing that now. This all happened a year ago, so I’m better now, thanks.

But enough about me, let’s talk about other people. Even though I’ve mostly stopped going to sex parties and stopped dating a lot of the poly people that I used to, I’m still friends with many of them (and will continue to be, I don’t just write friends off because of a change in lifestyle preference). And I’ve heard a shit ton of sob stories in recent months about so many people’s #polyproblems that it just boggles my mind and, frankly, makes me sad. Many of the couples that people thought were the model polyamory example have broken up by now and since I’ve began writing this, they keep dropping like flies. Jefferson, who was the subject of my inaugural glowing profile, has, by now, broken up with his girlfriend Kay. He says it’s because she fell in love with another guy. She says it’s because they already had a bunch of relationship problems, which I won’t get into here, but which are all valid. I don’t know who is right or wrong, but I think we can all agree that things would have been different if neither of them was seeing other people.

I’ve seen my friends cry about their breakups, or ongoing relationship problems, in the coffee shop, in restaurants, in bars, on stage (hi, Jefferson!). I’ve been one of those people, too, of course. I’ve cried in the street, in restaurants and bars, in the museum, on the train. (But it’s all nbd, right? Cause everyone in New York cries and has breakdowns in public). I’ve heard them say ridiculous things like “she is going on vacation with her other bf and doesn’t want me to come” or “He’s more poly than I am” or “she might leave me for someone else and I’ll just have to deal with it” or “she’s been trying to make me have sex with other people cause we haven’t had sex in over a year.” Etc.

And my question to all this, usually, is: why are you doing this to yourself? Why are you doing this to your partner? I’m convinced most people in open relationships are masochists. It’s like they’ve forgotten they have a choice. Moreover this is an alternative lifestyle that’s often taken on by people that are very intelligent, well educated, artistic and generally think outside the box. So when it comes to polyamory, they think they’re doing something so novel and radical that they feel it necessary to defend it, and even, promote it! I know a triad (that’s a relationship made up of three people, for those of you that are new to this game) that were so adamant about promoting the fact that this stuff actually works that they had a Web page and a Twitter and traveled the country teaching people how to do triads and open relationships. Yeah, guess what? They broke up recently. Not sure what they’re going to do with the twitter, web site, etc., at this point.

But seriously, guys. Is it necessary to PROMOTE this stuff?? You don’t see monogamous people going around and preaching about how their relationship is working so well because it’s monogamous, do you? If you want to normalize polyamory, then just talk about it like a regular person, don’t go around promoting it like it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Talk about the ups and downs, talk about the fact that it’s difficult, talk about how it’s hard to manage.

Because lord knows all those things are true. Most people in polyamouropus relationships, once you get to know them well, will tell you that it’s fucking difficult. It’s hard enough managing your own expectations against one other person’s; it’s even more difficult to add more people’s expectations into the equation and manage them all via several channels. Especially as most people’s expectations, needs and desires tend to change over time. I still know several couples for whom polyamory still seems to be working, at least for now, and will be writing their stories in future posts. But, at the moment, a lot of what I’m seeing is a giant pile of broken hearts.

I was talking about this recently with a friend of mine (who is part of the poly lifestyle, ish) and complaining to him about how depressing all these breakups are and he just said, “Well, relationships are difficult, they’re going to be difficult any way you slice it. Love is messy.” So basically….whatever…. this is just one of the ways in which relationships are difficult. But no, I call bullshit, I think you can make them a lot less difficult if you weren’t actually dating other people. And, fundamentally, I think that as long as you’re dating, or even fucking, other people, you are willingly threatening your existing relationship, and you are letting your partner know that you’re threatening your relationship, which fucking hurts.  I don’t care how committed to or in love you are with your existing partner, allowing other people into it, and not not having any boundaries around the type of relationship you can pursue with other people, leaves the door wide open for you to fall in love with someone else and leave your partner. Maybe it won’t happen, maybe it will, but that’s the thing: you can’t control love.

Another example: My girlfriend at the time and I were having dinner with a friend a couple of years ago and she (the friend) was quizzing us on the polyamory subject, as she was interested in a guy who was in a long-term (albeit poly) relationship with another woman and she wasn’t sure how to navigate that. The incumbent girlfriend didn’t like her, etc. And she was asking us how we go about our open relationship. My girlfriend said something like, “well, you’re going to fight and have problems anyway, right? So you might as well fight about this stuff than fight about who’s going to wash the dishes.”

No. I completely disagree. I would much rather fight about who’s going to wash the dishes. “Who’s going to wash the dishes” isn’t going to make or break our relationship. Falling in love with someone else, or the potential to, would. And, in fact, it ultimately did.

Which brings me to my next point. This makes me insecure huh? And insecurity/jealousy makes one unattractive, right? All the polyamorous people I know have a whole code and language around this stuff (a lot of which comes from The Ethical Slut and other online and published literature that has come out of it from there on out). Things like: jealousy is a useless emotion. If you’re feeling jealousy it’s just a “trigger.” It’s an insecurity trigger. It means something isn’t working in your existing relationship that you should take a look at and talk to your partner about. Talk, talk, talk, Communication, communication, communication. That’s the motto. And, hey, I think communication is great, but I’m fine with that single utterance of it, not three.

When you talk to polyamorous people, regardless of whether they’re your partners or not, you can get into an endless fucking loop of introspective, narcissistic, existential conversations that, for me, are much more mental masturbation than I want or need in my life.

There is always an “if, and or but” to anything you ever say, in perpetuity. If you say, “the sky is blue,” they’ll say, “but actually….” And they might be right, it’s something about how the white light from the sun reflects through the water, which is what makes up most of the Earth, etc., etc. But sometimes I’d just like the conversation to stop at “the sky is blue,” damn it.

Moreover, it makes you feel like your emotions/feelings are unnecessary or invalid, when newsflash: all of us are insecure. If you’re sitting there and thinking, oh it’s fine if my partner is dating/fucking other people, I know they’ll never leave me, then you’re either a) lying to yourself (or are a megalomaniac/sociopath/narcissist) or b) you don’t actually care about your partner and don’t mind if they leave you or not. Neither of which adds up to a healthy relationship.

And speaking of that second point, in talking to a lot of my polyamorous friends lately, I’ve found that many of them have this laissez faire attitude about relationships to the tune of “yeah, this is working right now, it might not work tomorrow, but you know, that’s life, whatever.” But then when it actually stops working (usually because your partner fell in love with someone else), they get really, really upset. Why? Because we do ultimately seek permanence, security and stability in our relationships. When we’re in love with someone, we want it to last forever. That’s why we say things like “I’ll always love you,” even when we can’t guarantee that it will last. Because we WANT IT to be true. And, granted, it’s impossible to “inflict” permanence on other people. We have no control over how our own or our partners’ desires, plans, needs or goals might change over time and veer away from our own, but I think it’s completely normal and natural to at least put some boundaries in place so that you don’t float in different directions. The form that those boundaries will take is up to you.

17 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about Polyamory (a rant)

  1. Wow. Wowowowowowowow.

    Were do I even start?

    Her experiment with poly was with someone who was also experimenting with poly, just as she left a monogamous marriage. It was simultaneously an experiment with non-heterosexual sex, which did not work for her. But she stayed for three years.

    Is it any surprise that this person surrounds herself with friends who are equally confused about what makes them happy? They cry in the street. They say they don’t care about stability but really do? What adult does that? None that I know, including polies. Why should her friends be considered a legitimate yardstick for measuring the merits of polyamory? I submit no one’s personal circle comes even close to being a scientific sample. We all form self-selected groups of like-minded folks. In her case, this means folks who just don’t know what they want and can’t think very well about the future. Just like the author herself behaved for three years.

    I don’t accept that she is qualified to declare “most” people in open relationships are “masochists.” And I don’t accept her comparisons to monogamists. They don’t go around promoting their lifestyle??? Is she freaking kidding me?!

    This lady had a bad experience. I’m very sorry about that. It really does suck to invest three years and have it all fall apart. But if we look at the divorce rate among monogamists (and the droves of couples in counseling, and the endless avalance of magazine articles on how to “spice up” your marriage, and the bottomless pit of self-help books for those struggling to feel happy with their mainstream status quo… I could go on, but you get the point!) we will find that mono lifestyle is no bed of roses in itself. It is just as “fucking difficult” as she complains polyamory to be.

    I’ve been there, I’ve done both. I’ve had success and been happy most of the time in both lifestyles. But I’ve been just a bit happier as a polyamorist. It is my natural orientation and living a poly life feels right. I am more relaxed, happier and fun and easy to be around, according to family and friends. No drama, no sidewalk breakdowns, no worries about who goes on vacation with whom.

    Why? Because I am very clear on who I am and what I want. And I make sure to date and keep company with like-minded folks.

  2. To anyone reading this: Do NOT enter a poly relationship even though you’d prefer a monogamous one just so you’ll get laid/be with that special someone. Please please please don’t do it! It’ll make things much worse for everyone!

    • This is very, very good advice and I applaud it!

      It also goes the other way: don’t get mixed up in a rigidly monogamous relationship if you are hard-wired for non-monogamy! You will not be happy. I’ve seen it too many times.

      I am fortunate in that I *can* go either way, if need be. I’m better suited to openness, but some people absolutely require it. Don’t settle!

  3. As I read each paragraph, I was tempted to poke holes in many of the author’s points and claims, but then reminded myself that this is a rant. It’s not necessarily intended to make sense, nor to be accurate or fair. I feel for this woman, who seems to have suffered with every shifting boundary and loss of direction, as her relationships disappeared. Anyone who measures the success of their relationships based on longevity is sure to be disappointed *every* time they break up.

  4. You engage in so many awful, unfair and absurd generalizations (poly guys are sleezeballs -no slut shaming there, right?-, polyamorists are masochists, etc.). It is hard to take your thoughts as anything but the sort of self-pitying and cruel rant one usually indulges in after a heartbreak and over plenty of alcohol. Sorry you had a bad experience, but why do I have a feeling a lifetime of failed serial monogamous relationships would not, for you, add up to the epiphany “monogamy doesn’t work!”? Elitist polys who think the whole world should be non monogamists are obnoxious, but they form a rather small subset of our “lifestyle.” Angry, small minded monogamists, on the other hand, are a dime a dozen. Congratulations on so publicly joining their august numbers.

  5. I’m a Mac user; always have been. I tried using Windows for a while – all my friends use it – but it just didn’t work for me. I had too many issues using it. It’s full of problems and is completely frustrating to use. I don’t understand how people can stand using Windows. The Mac is a superior operating system.

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  8. Since you mentioned my break-up, I’ll add that I don’t see ours as a “he says/she says” narrative conflict. I agree with her that there were problems, she agrees with me that her love for someone else was a factor. The only difference, really, is in degrees: any problems between us were put into relief by the “new relationship energy” she felt for someone else; their love and actions broke my heart over and again, exacerbating our problems.

    Anais, you offered me this wise counsel: for years, I’ve made it clear to anyone I dated that I did not want a big commitment, I date other people and there will be limits to our relationship (i.e., you will not meet my children). Some women have pushed those boundaries, to my annoyance, and the relationships did not endure. Kay honored them, and so I gravitated to her, even relaxing my boundaries, consciously or not. Five years in, we had settled into a committed, loving relationship that was contently “monogamish.” When she began to date someone else, and to develop feelings for him, she was abiding by our original agreement—by my terms. In the meantime, without really acknowledging it, my needs and expectations for the relationship had changed. I wanted and expected a secure commitment. She wanted that with the fun and freedom to pursue new love. By the terms I introduced, that was fine by me. I was surprised at myself by how awful it left me feeling—which you, Anais, would be quick to question: how could that not feel awful!

    Others have said, and I’ll reiterate, that a five-year relationship is a good run, whether monogamous or polyamorous. Poly brought special challenges to our relationship. While I’ve dated some amazing people Kay regards as good friends, there were those who brought jealousy and bad behavior to bare. Her current relationship proved very painful to me, both in my emotions and in their behavior. I feel that what we’ve learned from poly helped us to navigate some shoals while acknowledging that it also steered us toward many rocks we might’ve avoided on a different ship.

    And yet, if we were monogamous, we might’ve wound up near the same shore. We had problems to work out, she met someone else and fell in love. That happens to monogamous couples, too. At best, we might’ve spared ourselves some anguish in recognizing earlier that we could not realize the goal of one girlfriend with two boyfriends, and someone was going to be hurt. I can’t say that I regret the effort to make that work.

    By contrast to my fifteen-year monogamous marriage, this model of a relationship at least does not restrict either partner emotionally and sexually. I truly do feel that mitigates the loss we may feel at its end.

    • I love the way you write! Wanna do a guest column? 😉

      Whenever you’re done with that giant thing you’re writing for your own blog, that is.

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