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I’ve given the “I don’t do monogamy” speech to lovers so many times I swear it runs through my head when I sleep. So many times that when I recite it, I can tune out the words and, instead, spend my energy belittling me internally: Listen, kid, you’ve got a serious case of the Women’s Lib shakes. “Free me, free me, free me!” -- am I right?
Like many people who identify as “polyamorous,” I pursue full-blown romantic relationships with more than one person at a time. And yes, I do this partly to make a political statement.
I’ve always thought that no one else should have a say in who I have sex with. This belief is a reaction to the fact that, as a social scientist, I know The (Straight) Couple is an incredibly powerful mini-factory for the production of sexist and heterosexist beliefs -- all packaged in pretty white wedding dresses and Taylor Swift songs. I have my own moral compass, don’t I? So why can’t I decide if some sex with her is good for me while I’m dating him? In short, I believe that I, and all my concomitant body parts, am un-ownable.
But the politics aren’t all of it. I have also chosen to be polyamorous out of a very personal unwillingness to say “no” to any form of learning. This includes learning a new person’s touch. And why would I give up real-life discoveries to pray that the infinite wisdom of He’s Just Not That Into You will eventually help me find The One?
I wasn’t always this way. I, too, used to put Lisa Frank unicorns on my binder next to the name of that boy I wanted to marry in Montessori school. And now I’m at the end of a five-year relationship that I thought would be forever. So recently, I’ve been wondering if the lack of emotional stability that sometimes comes with practicing polyamory is really what I want.
Maybe I’ve just gotten tired. But I’ve started asking myself some serious questions, like, How did I get here? What traumas, which people, what broken-heart moments have led me to this place? And where should I go next?
Let me tell you, this introspection has unearthed some ugly self-realizations. Try this one on for size: In striving to not end up like my (bipolar, alcoholic) mother, I got stuck with her desperate need to be loved.
Like you, I care a lot about my mom. But she is oh-so-broken. And like me, she has her reasons. Her daddy didn’t love her. She got married at 18 to a man who stopped being physically intimate with her shortly after she had kids and who later died at the age of 55. (R.I.P., dad.) Her mom beat Roman Catholicism into her -- sometimes literally. She never earned a higher degree because she worked to put my dad through college and then through chiropractic school.
To make matters worse, my dad’s chiropractic practice eventually failed, leaving him more emotionally shut-down than ever and my mom virtually on her own. She had to act alone, as if she were a single parent, to find a job that’d pay to support the four of us while my dad wandered the streets with an empty head.
Occasionally he’d even be picked up by the police and returned to us late at night, with little memory of where he’d been or how he’d gotten where he was going. (He eventually got back on his feet, and found a job at a local newspaper.)
How did my mom respond to all of this? By screaming slurs at him and at us. By crying inconsolably. And by sinking even deeper into the vicious cycles of her moods and alcohol dependence. The overarching message is: when my mom feels unloved, she lashes out. And she seems to feel unloved all of the time because she has suffered a long history of trauma.
But what does my family dysfunction have to do with polyamory, exactly? Well, our adult romantic relationships are inevitably modeled, in some way, on our relationships with our parents. Psychologists from Freud to Jung and beyond have argued that you will never fully escape the emotional programming you acquired in that very first, primary relationship.
So, since my mom is unpredictable and cruel, and my dad never protected me from her (and then went on to die of cancer just before I graduated college -- that bastard!), suffice it to say that I am deeply skeptical of the continuing, reliable nature of any love. Of my brother’s love for me. Of my friends’ love for me. Of any man or woman’s romantic love for me.
And, like many people who grew up in a similar environment, I’m always questioning if I deserve to be loved at all.
At 26, it’s finally becoming clear to me. I’ve been seeking self-esteem, affection, and some semblance of a family structure through a polyamorous lifestyle. Polyamory has been a defense mechanism built on top of my feelings of anger, hurt, isolation and inadequacy.
In considering the sets of relationships I’ve engaged in at various points in my life, I can see that I’ve always been trying to either repudiate my past, or compensate for it. Rarely have I made a self-aware relationship decision that wasn’t in direct reaction to the lack of love and stability I received early in life.
My version of lashing out when I feel unsupported? Trying to make you believe “I don’t need you, Lover!” by sleeping with a lot of people … even if I don’t actually want to. My version of asking for family support? Having sex with different “kinds of people,” like men and women, or a younger partner and an older paramour.
I used to believe that by dividing my emotional needs across an array of individuals, I’d be able to save each person from having to take care of me too much. As you may have already realized, I’m the one who should have been taking care of myself all along.
Don’t get me wrong, I share some beliefs with other polyamorous people that I will never disavow. My first “Relationship Stick-To-It” is that I will not do anything I don’t want to do with my body, whether that’s have sex with you or not have sex with someone else. OK?!
Secondly, I think that most relationships (of any kind) are bad relationships, principally because they operate on unchecked sexist and heterosexist pretenses. And in these bad relationships, people don’t frankly or respectfully discuss their wants and needs. There are at least two primary consequences of such poor communication in The Bad Relationship.
To begin with, a lot of feelings both parties have during the course of The Relationship will be deemed “unsayable,” and so they will be bottled up. Over time, these unspoken feelings will harden into resentments, which can cause catastrophic damage to The Relationship. Secondly, it might take you a really long time to realize you’re unhappy in The Relationship.
As I see it, people often enter, and continue, a romantic partnership without explicitly negotiating the rules surrounding the terms of that partnership -- including each person’s sexual monogamy (or lack thereof). As a result, you can spend years in an abysmally unhappy relationship without even knowing it… until something jarring happens and you “wake up.” Until, for whatever reason, you suddenly realize that you’ve dug yourself deep down into a hole of unwanted obligations.
So you run. You commit suicide. You do any number of damaging things to yourself or to your partner, just because you never actually communicated with each other.
Lastly, there’s the issue of “Conventional Wisdom.” These purported Big Truths are weights that pile up on your chest over the years, and, in unremarkable increments, lead to complete strangulation. I don’t believe in reproducing hand-me-down relationship structures without engaging in my own life experiments. And neither should you; experience is important.
One more reason I’ve thus far failed to find my One True (Monogamous) Love is that I’ve never had complete respect for any of my partners. If you know that your boyfriend/girlfriend has serious limitations, you are eventually going to look elsewhere to find fulfillment -- whether that’s while you’re dating him/her or after your relationship has ended. I guess I’ve always figured, then, Why not just cut to the chase? Clearly, there’s something wrong with your relationship model if this is the thought-place you call home.
So, I’m starting to believe that even if polyamory is right “in principal,” it may not be right for me. I’ve been careful not to adopt dominant ideologies on relationships without critical reflection. But I don’t believe that I -- or you -- should buy into activist relationship models without careful scrutiny, either. It happened to me: I thought ideas other people made up could solve my relationship issues. As it turns out, I’m the only one who can do that.