“Do you think you could ever go back to being monogamous?” I’m sometimes asked. Maybe. It really depends on what you are talking about when you’re talking about monogamy.
Could I limit myself to only having sex with one partner? Certainly. It’s not that difficult. Masturbation and imagination can go a long way. A little self-control and caution. No big deal.
But if it meant that I couldn’t forge connections with people, be emotionally vulnerable with them anymore? No way.
Unfortunately, a lot of monogamous people consider a variety of socially connected behavior to be “cheating.” No friendships with members of the opposite sex. You don’t even want to give the appearance of impropriety. And definitely no flirting or cuddling. To be that deeply warm invites treason.
I cannot go back to that. My bisexuality makes it all even worse. I had an ex who couldn’t trust me to be social with anyone. Such misery.
Polyamory has been a vastly different proposition for me. And research supports my personal experience. A recent study by Terri Conley at the University of Michigan’s Stigmatized Sexualities Lab found that polyamorous people tend to maintain more friendships as they keep a wider social network. They are also less likely to cut off contact after a break-up.
We’ve culturally painted ourselves into a corner with the traditional “and they lived happily ever after” romantic narrative. It’s a lot to ask one person to be your entire world. Esther Perel nails this in Mating in Captivity:
Love, beyond providing emotional sustenance, compassion, and companionship, is now expected to act as a panacea for existential aloneness as well. We look to our partner as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of modern life. It is not that our human insecurity is greater today than in earlier times. In fact, quite the contrary may be true. What is different is that modern life has deprived us of our traditional resources, and has created a situation in which we turn to one person for the protection and emotional connections that a multitude of social networks used to provide. Adult intimacy has become overburdened with expectations.
The cultural mythos surrounding monogamy instructs us that if the love is good enough, pure enough, a “true love,” that we will never notice anyone else, be attracted to anyone else, or be pulled to connect with others meaningfully.
As Tristan Taormino writes in Opening Up:
When someone in a monogamous relationship is first confronted with a desire that contradicts the mythology, it causes a range of reactions. Perhaps you realize your partner isn’t meeting all your needs. Or you find yourself attracted to someone else. At first you feel guilty because you’re not supposed to have those feelings. They’re supposed to be reserved for your one-and-only! If you were really in love… But you have them, and you have some options. You can recognize the feeling without shame or guilt and decide you’re not going to act on it because you don’t need to or want to. You will probably feel good about this decision—it is the decision made by people who’ve thought about monogamy and chosen it consciously. But the next three options are far more common:
1) Deny the desire: This is a coping mechanism that sends your feelings underground, where they fester, leading to resentment, anger, and disconnection from your partner.
2) Indulge the desire: Your only option here is to cheat, which leads to deception and betrayal.
3) Fulfill the desire: You can only truly fulfill it if you end your current relationship and then start one with the new person. Serial monogamy, here we come! In actuality, there is another option. There are several, in fact. But they all require that you give up monogamy.
More options in addition to the ones Taormino has outlined:
2a/3a) Indulge/fulfill the desire ethically. One way is polyamory (duh) or some other form of consensual nonmonogamy (swinging, open relationship, etc).
4) You can recognize the feeling without shame or guilt and act on it in small ways without consummation.
And #4 is precisely the point where I could see myself being able to “do monogamy” these days.
Indeed, when the great web burning of 2011 happened, and I went through 4 breakups in a period of about 3 months, leaving a single partner (and not my original primary), I was devastated and shellshocked. I told Skyspook that I wasn’t going to be seeking out additional partners for the time being and wanted instead to work on myself.
Much to my amazement, Skyspook also said he wasn’t looking to pursue anyone else and that it’d just be the two of us for a while. We both agreed that all it would take is one discussion for us to reopen. I went to therapy, went back to school, and established a career. We always had a broad sense of what was considered “acceptable” in our poly-aware though monogamous in practice arrangement (monoflexible, monogamish, etc). Skyspook cuddled with friends, I’d flirt, stuff that gets a lot of monogamous folks in trouble out in the wild.
Four years later, we started to notice that we were having weird discussions the night after parties, having odd check-ins, one of us asking the other in turn “was that cheating?” and then we realized how silly it all was and consciously decided to reopen. It was time. We were at that tipping point where policing our monogamy was more work than being open in an easygoing way would be. Plus, I had finally healed from my breakups to the point where I wasn’t dreading the possibility I’d have to break up with someone else.
So, sure, I could be monogamous again. But never in the same way I was before finding polyamory. I fearlessly embrace connection and emotional intimacy when it occurs, and that’s not something I’d give up.