Monogamy or Polyamory?
Open relationships, also known as polyamorous, are gaining wider attention and acceptance. Many people, all too aware of rising divorce rates, the potential of cheating spouses, and the reality of multiple-partner relationships in other cultures, are examining poly as a viable alternative to monogamy.
Rather than "picking a side" and demonizing either monogamy or polyamory, lets examine the pros and cons of both relationship models.
Right off the bat, we need to acknowledge that this is a weighted discussion. No matter how impartial we try to be, value-laden words such as "slut," "promiscuous," "traditional" or "jealousy" create a touchy atmosphere.
One immediate clarification must be made in any discussion about polyamory: Sexuality does not dictate the model of relationship you're best suited for. You can be gay, lesbian, bisexual or straight, and it has absolutely nothing to do with your ability to manage (or not) an open relationship.
This is necessary to explain because there seems to be an assumption that all straight people are monogamous and most gays and lesbians are polyamorous. Another damaging assumption is that bisexuals are promiscuous and only happy in open relationships.
Everyone is different, and their abilities to handle different relationship models are therefore different. Even people in open relationships maintain different agreements, specially customized to their relationship and understanding of it. For instance:
- One or both partners may maintain other serious relationships, as long as the primary couple is put first.
- They may opt to have only one partner sleep with multiple people, with their primary partner's permission.
- One or both partners may choose to have extra sexual partners, but no serious outside relationships.
- A couple may opt to always share any extra partners, but never have sex without their significant other present and/or actively involved.
- A couple may confine their activities to partner-swapping in an agreed-upon setting.
- A couple may agree that either partner can mess around while traveling, as long as they acknowledge the experience if it comes up.
The main tenets of any open relationship is honesty and communication. If you're actively lying to your partner about your sexual activities, it's not an open relationship. This doesn't mean you need to come home and tell every detail about the night before -- but if your primary partner has a concern, it needs to be honestly addressed. Hiding information and ignoring the issue will only make it worse.
Likewise, if you're breaking agreed-upon boundaries without re-negotiating them first, it's no longer an honest open relationship.
For instance, if your partner says, "No threesomes with anyone but me," that would be an agreed upon boundary. Likewise, if your partner says, "Serious relationships with anyone but me make me extremely uncomfortable," that's a boundary signal, and a discussion of what constitutes a "serious relationship," as well as both party's views and objections, needs to be held.
So why, with such potentially attendant uncomfortable discussions, would anyone choose to be polyamorous? For that matter, why would someone opt for an open relationship instead of just staying single? Well, there's a multitude of reasons.
- The science/ evolution argument. It is argued that it simply isn't in human nature to be monogamous, that practicing such a relationship is unnatural and counter-intuitive.
- Social monogamy. This term originated in reference to animals (such as penguins and wolves) that were previously thought to bond in sexually monogamous pairs, but later evidence showed bonded in socially monogamous pairs, while still displaying sexual promiscuity. In terms of human society, it is the desire to be partnered with someone because you value their company for various reasons and find it more advantageous to be with them than without them, but you are not inclined to sexual monogamy.
- A desire for variety or spice.
- Boredom in the bedroom.
- A belief that cheating is inevitable in a long term relationship, so you opt to sidestep the cheating aspect altogether.
- Partners have mismatched sex drives/ kinks. For instance, one partner may enjoy BDSM and rape fantasies, and the other partner is so turned off by this they have a hard time performing.
- Social pressure.
The last one may sound odd, considering that awareness (let alone acceptance!) of open relationships is still a fairly new thing. But the reality is, social groups shape personalities. For instance, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) practice polygamy, a form of polyamory. While there have been a few high-profile cases of women leaving the religion, there is also significant evidence that many more FLDS women enjoy their lives and find such relationships fulfilling.
Furthermore, non-monogamous relationships have been and sometimes still are the norm in many non-western societies. For instance, polyandry was once common in Tibet, and polygyny is still practiced in modern South Africa. Such anthropological evidence proves that non-monogamous relationships are sustainable, and for many, preferable.
Western culture has it's own history of non-monogamy that has been covered in depth. From the mistresses and concubines throughout European history to the more recent "swingers clubs" birthed during the free love movement of the 1960s, monogamy has never been the only (or even preferred) relationship model.
Part of the reason why the question of monogamy vs. polyamory is now gaining such widespread attention is because while monogamy is the accepted and condoned relationship mode in modern Western history, it's become so because of an emphasis on romantic love. Historically, polyamory has been a welcome respite from once-common arranged marriages, and is almost inextricably linked in the Western mind with a loveless primary relationship. This socially-held subconscious mindset is not only a significant roadblock that couples who opt to attempt poly must overcome, it also contributes to the societal bias against poly relationships and the perception they are not "real," they are not "committed" and they are not sustainable. This strongly held misconception that all love, for everyone, must be focused on a single person leads to problems even with committed poly people, as they may start dating someone who initially seems okay with poly, but ends up expecting one member of the couple to leave their other partners and become monogamous with them.
So with such social and evolutionary arguments for polyamory, why would someone choose monogamy? Once again, many factors feed into this.
- When practiced honestly, monogamy is less sexually risky.
- The social expectation/ belief that monogamy is the only valid expression of romantic love.
- Religious beliefs.
- Evolution. There is a tendency to think, whether consciously or unconsciously, that evolution is no longer applicable to our species. Even a moment's consideration uncovers the fallacy of this belief. Indeed, recent studies indicate a higher IQ is associated with historically non-traditional expressions of religious, political and sexual expression -- specifically, atheism, social liberalism, and sexual exclusivity in males.
- A moral belief (not necessarily associated with religion) that human beings should not take their relationship cues from the animal kingdom, nor defend their relationship choices with examples from the animal kingdom. Rather, relationships should be evaluated within a social context and the motivations and emotions of the people involved.
Despite these pros, monogamy faces it's own challenges. Part of the increased importance of monogamy stems from modern unions, which are predominantly romantic. This trend in marriage is actually a fairly recent trend, historically speaking. Unfortunately, a marriage founded on romance faces unprecedented challenges exacerbated by a media-enhanced belief that love conquers all.
Obviously, love can create a strong base for a happy marriage, but sometimes the expectation that love will create automatic harmony blinds a couple to the reality of how much work is involved in a relationship.
Which to choose?
Which relationship model you choose should depend on several considerations. The most important thing to take into account is your partner's feelings relative to the significance placed on the relationship.
Basically, if you think that you can be happy as either monogamous or polyamorous, and your partner definitely prefers a certain mode, then your feelings for your partner should guide your decision.
That said, if you're opting to move from a monogamous relationship to a poly one, move slowly. Assess your emotions and reactions at every stage, especially in the beginning. You may be intellectually and morally okay with polyamory, but find yourself blindsided by a deeply ingrained, viscerally negative response.
If you find yourself having extremely antagonistic emotions to polyamory in practice, especially if you sleep with multiple partners and find you dislike yourself, then don't let friends or partners pressure you into it. Just because you're okay with it in theory doesn't mean you have to practice it. You can understand and accept something without needing to do it yourself.
This leads to the next thought. If you find you're strongly inclined to monogamy and your partner just as strongly inclined to polyamory, it's then up to you to decide if the relationship is vital enough to handle normal, everyday stress amplified by opposing sexual proclivities.
Is it possible for your partner to be happily monogamous, perhaps with the incorporation of toys, role-playing or porn? Or is it possible for you to find a comfort level within the various shades of polyamory, perhaps by only having threesomes or opting for an open-while-traveling clause?
If neither of those is a possibility, then the relationship is not going to last. All relationships take compromise, but when people are unable or unwilling to meet in the middle, it's not sustainable.
The most important thing to remember as increased attention is turned on the viability of both monogamy and polyamory is that neither is superior. Each has their own unique drawbacks and benefits, and in the end, it's down to each couple and the comfort level of the individuals involved.
A final word
One other thing to take into account -- children. There's a tendency, especially in this day and age, to overshare private details with uninvolved parties. If you opt for poly, remember that unless additional sexual partners are a regular and highly involved (live-in) part of your at-home family life, your extended family and casual friends don't necessarily need to know that you're poly.
You may not be ashamed of it, and may even feel it's necessary to share this aspect of your life in order to de-stigmatize it, but weigh the risk to your children before you speak. Even polyamorous advocates recommend that parents in polyamorous relationships keep it on a need-to-know basis, as unforeseen legal ramifications may threaten your family.
For instance, polyamorous families with live-in partners often face resistance from hospitals, schools and other organizations when they try to introduce a third or fourth parent into the decision-making process for their child. This can be circumvented by introducing the live-in partner as an aunt or uncle, but it's not fool-proof.
Additionally, grandparents or ex-lovers who have a genetic or legal relationship claim can petition the courts to remove a child from an "unfit" (polyamorous) home -- a value judgment, certainly, but a real threat.
Sources and reading material
Websites and Blogs
Savage Love, Dan Savage
Stephen Crippen, marriage counselor
The Gay Moralist, John Corvino
Unreasonable Faith (The Myth of Monogamy, VorJack)
Cinderella Dreams: The Allure of the Lavish Wedding, by Cele Otnes
Open, by Jenny Block
Sex at Dawn, by Christopher Ryan
The Ethical Slut, by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy