The Conscientious Polyamorist

a large and very neatly organized and labeled spice collection sitting on a kitchen counter. Two electrical outlets are visible above the spices. The bottom edge of what appears to be a wooden cabinet frames the top of the image.
Image by Lenore Edman / CC BY

A study came out a while back correlating personality traits with polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy. I read it with great interest but didn’t write about it for a long time.

Frankly, I was rather feelsy about the results:

  1. Having an openness to experience made it more likely that someone would have positive attitudes towards consensual non-monogamy (CNM) and be willing to engage in those kinds of relationships
  2. People high in conscientiousness were markedly less likely to have consensually non-monogamous relationships and in general held more negative attitudes toward them

As the study authors wrote about the second point:

“[I]ndividuals who tend to be very organized, neat, careful, and success driven (i.e., high in conscientiousness) perceive CNM negatively and have less desire to engage in CNM. Additionally, given that highly conscientiousness individuals tend to deliberate, these individuals may have carefully considered what these relationships embodied (i.e., thought carefully about how each of the CNM-related item would play out) before providing their attitudes. Although we did not originally hypothesize this result, this finding is largely consistent with previous research showing low conscientiousness to be robustly (and cross-culturally) associated with interest in relationship nonexclusivity … Potentially, those high in conscientiousness may view CNM relationships as having ill-defined relational scripts. Highly conscientious individuals are less geared toward sensation seeking … and perhaps less willing to violate social norms involving monogamy.”

When I read these findings, I had two near-simultaneous reactions:

  1. I wanted them desperately not to be true.
  2. I knew they probably were.

And #2 was a particularly painful realization. People are often surprised to find out I’m polyamorous, because I don’t fit their “picture” of what that’s supposed to look like. I’m restrained in professional settings. Told I can seem like a prude until you get to know me. I’m driven, a hard worker, thoughtful, a planner. Sure, I’m not particularly neat. And I’m the queen of typos. But I’m diligent.

I am a conscientious polyamorist.

And I’m not the only one. But the research would suggest there aren’t all that many of us, and it’s not an easy path.

The Conscientious Polyamorist

I currently have two partners who are also very conscientious. All three of us have been managers in a professional setting. Ro does work that takes her internationally in a highly specialized, detail-oriented field. She also ran a local nonprofit like a tight ship. Justin (a.k.a Skyspook) is an engineer who rebuilt our oven’s control panel from spare parts he had kicking about in the garage. He’s the one you want to talk to if you have a question about city ordinances or anything… really. He’s very particular about the way he cuts the grass.

They are two of the adultiest adults I know. They are the people I want around in a crisis.

And it’s wonderful.

I’ve tried to date others who were low in conscientiousness and nearly lost my mind. “What is wrong with you?” I’d think, much more often than was comfortable. “Why are you flaking out on your commitments?”

I’d see problems they were pushing to the side that were easily fixable if they only took a few moments to address them.

But I’d know it wasn’t my place to do more than gentle acknowledgment of it, pointing it out in soft terms, knowing full well that unsolicited advice is rarely followed.

Perfectionism Made Polyamory a Terrifying Prospect

When I first started to have polyamorous relationships, I worried a lot about doing a half-ass job. I struggled with fear and guilt that becoming polyamorous meant that I was going to shortchange anyone I dated.  This is because I viewed sex and love as zero sum, believing that each person only has so much love, and when they’re splitting that pie among multiple people, everyone gets a thinner slice.

And because relationships were important to me, I’d always approached monogamous relationships with a perfectionist lens. I thought of this in superlative terms: Giving someone my all, giving them my best.

Rather than achieving perfection, this approach often backfired as I smothered and overwhelmed most partners I had. But I had no idea that things could be any different. And much like Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who are unskilled are often the most confident (and vice versa, the most skilled folks are plagued by doubts), I thought I was in a really good relationship (when I really wasn’t) and that the way I’d been doing things was the one “right” way.

Something had to give. As I wrote in an earlier piece on perfectionism and polyamory:

Perfectionism and polyamory aren’t a great mix. But neither are perfectionism and happiness.

I get it. I was raised by two perfectionists. And I’m a recovering people pleaser.

But I can honestly say that giving up the need to be perfect was one of the best things I’ve ever done.

It was terrifying at first. It felt like the fast track to Slacker City. How could I possibly achieve if I didn’t demand the absolute best from myself?

How could I stay ambitious and hungry if I was satisfied with less than perfection?

Simple. I put the emphasis on the effort instead of the result. And made the goal showing up consistently and focusing on continual improvement.

Polyamory Forced Me to Stop Being a Perfectionist…and to Become an Optimizer Instead

Polyamory forced me to let go of my old ways of doing things: I gave up perfectionism and focused on being an optimizer.

The difference was striking. I was much happier, and my life started to go better. True, some of my relationships didn’t make it, but the ones that needed to end, did — making room for ones that were better for all involved. People tend to view breakups as failures, but the reality is that staying together when you shouldn’t is just another kind of failure. One that can be just as devastating.

Work ethic is still one of my core values. And I’m always going to be diligent. But perfectionism is a thing of the past, which is a good thing since research has demonstrated it’s terrible for your mental health.

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But yes, very interesting study. It confirms what I’ve lived: Although it’s certainly not impossible, I find it very difficult to find partners who are both exciting and responsible. Willing to go on adventures and to take risks but also likely to get us safely back home in one piece afterward. So when I do? I do my best to hold on to them.

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My new book is out!

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching: Advice for Couples Seeking Another Partner 

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2 Comments

  1. Well written. Not perfect, but you got the point across and that is what the whole thing is about. Well done! I very much enjoyed finding your blog. I feel like navigating through relationships and desiring a poly lifestyle was something unrealistic and frowned upon. I was wrong for wanting it but still stubborn enough to not want to settle into a typical, American society approved, vanilla relationship. You have given me hope in knowing I’m not alone and can eventually find the right mix of love, responsibility, safety, fun, trust, and understanding that I am searchingg for. Thank you and keep up the good work!

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