Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Monogamy Is Over. So Is Polyamory.

A recent issue of Time magazine ran with the cover, "Is Monogamy Over?"

The consensus among the thinkers/cultural gurus who weighed in on this question seemed to be, "No, monogamy isn't over -- er, not exactly. Kind of. But not, like, TOTALLY over. Which is good, because monogamy can be a good thing for people. Kind of. At least in theory."

I disagree. I think monogamy IS over.

The mere fact that Time put that question on their cover demonstrates that our cultural narratives about relationships are changing, and changing pretty rapidly. I believe that within a few decades, most people's attitudes about relationships will look more like mine, whether or not they choose a lifestyle like mine. 

But don't get all excited (or freaked out, as the case may be) about the coming Ascendency of the Polyamorous World Order, because I also think polyamory is over.

What I see, from my vantage point, is that people are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with both "monogamy" and "polyamory", and what those labels imply. At nearly every "poly" gathering I have attended, someone says something like, "I don't know if I qualify as truly polyamorous, because...."

[Here are some of the "disqualfiers" I've heard: My partner and I are thinking about opening our relationship, but we're still in the experimental phase; I'm in a companionship marriage with my gay husband, and I don't even have another partner right now; I just broke up with partner A, which means now I'm only seeing partner B; I'm not dating at the moment, and neither is my wife, which I guess means we are technically monogamous; My live-in partner and I don't have sex any more, so my girlfriend is my only sex partner; I identify as asexual; I'm actually still a virgin; etc.]

I wonder if we need a new term to describe the new relationship paradigm that is in the process of emerging -- a term that denotes a collection of ideas about relationships, rather than a set of practices. (I know, I know: not another new term!)

Regardless of what we might call this collection of ideas, I'd like to take a stab at enumerating them. Here they are -- feel free to email me with any additions/deletions/clarifications/comments!

{EDIT: Quite a few people have pointed out that the ideas below sound a lot like Relationship Anarchy. I discuss RA, and the reasons why I don't feel comfortable calling myself a relationship anarchist, here.}

  • sex isn't bad or shameful
  • different people manifest sexuality in many different ways; as long as it's consensual, we shouldn't judge other people's sexual tastes or the way they choose to express themselves sexually (or not, in the case of people who identify as asexual)
  • sex isn't inherently private; robust, open communication about sex is good
  • open communication about your sexual history/activities is perhaps the most important “safer sex” practice you can implement (your partners are then able to give informed consent)
  • sex can be sacred outside of exclusivity and long-term commitment (in other words, it's not a choice between "sacred & monogamous" and "casual & promiscuous" sex)
  • there is no natural, non-arbitrary line we can draw to separate what's sexual and what isn't
  • people have the same right to express themselves sexually, and to engage in sex on their own terms, regardless of gender/orientation (there should be no double standard)

  • true intimacy depends on open communication (which depends on a bunch of other things, including self-knowledge, communication skills, and a commitment to honesty and transparency): “don't ask, don't tell” limits intimacy; indulging in intrigue or "mind" games can damage trust
  • intimacy is more valuable than privacy
  • intimacy depends on mutual consent and reciprocity (in other words, boundaries are healthy)
  • most people do better with multiple intimacies in their lives
  • people who celebrate and foster multiple intimacies will create stronger communities than those who limit their intimacies: what we want is deeper, more bonded communities brought together by mutual interest in intimacy, rather than a common interest in eradicating some hated Other
  • there is no clear distinction between sexual and non-sexual intimacy, because intimacy is holistic: it includes the whole person, and sexuality is part of that

  • you don't have to break up with a partner when things aren't perfect; there are all kinds of creative solutions to incompatibilities
  • likewise, you don't have to break up with one person because you are interested in another; it doesn't have to be “choose A or B”
  • DIY relationships are more rewarding than following a culturally sanctioned script, because they are of necessity engaged in more consciously (although some discourse on polyamory is getting script-y these days)
  • there are no relationship “givens”: agreements, terms, obligations do not magically occur because some event happens (“you slept with me, so that means X” or “you married me, so that means Y”), but because people sat down together and made an explicit agreement – and understand that those agreements must be revisited regularly
  • there is no ideal model for how a relationship should be
  • change is inevitable in any relationship (which is why agreements must be revisited to make sure they are still serving everyone's needs); and not every good relationship is sustainable
  • there is no “correct” trajectory for how change “should” happen in the course of a relationship
  • one person can't be everything to anyone (under this paradigm, no one ever has to ask, “Why am I not enough for you?” or “You like so-and-so? What's wrong with me?”)
  • the dyad is not the only locus of intimacy

  • jealousy doesn't equal love; it is better for your psychological health to let it go; it is totally possible to overcome, or at least minimize, your feelings of jealousy
  • jealousy, when examined, proves to be a collection of fears (abandonment, personal inadequacy, etc.)
  • it is possible to develop positive feelings in place of or in addition to jealous feelings, i.e. "compersion" (happiness because of a partner's happiness with another)
  • it is possible to experience romantic love for more than one person at a time (though since relationships tend to be at different stages, and to fill different needs, in practice this overlap isn't complete....)
  • you can't be honest with others unless you understand your own emotions and learn to communicate about them without holding others responsible for how you feel: you have to have a clear sense of where your ego boundaries are
  • the desire to control one's intimate partners is unhealthy, and it's worth working to overcome this desire to control them, because everyone is happier when autonomy is respected and nurtured


  1. I believe the term you are searching for is "Relationship Anarchy" ;)

  2. Yup -- your ideas overlap with some of the broad concepts behind relationship anarchy (http://goo.gl/QntlqN), and also resonate with many of the ideas present of solo polyamory, and non-hierarchical polyamory.

  3. Well said, my wife & I largely agree with your assessment thanks to our experience over the past decade.

  4. OP- Great points and well written!

    Relationship anarchy sounds like yet another attempt for people to sound edgy, calm down hipsters it's a concept of relationships not a world government.

  5. As others have already pointed out, the term already exists. :) You should look up Relationship Anarchy, because it's exactly what you're describing.

    1. I am somewhat familiar with Relationship Anarchy. In fact, my husband identifies as a Relationship Anarchist, based on what he's read. I do think there are differences between what I'm describing and RA, but perhaps these are not worth equivocating about. Or maybe I need to do a compare & contrast (if there is a contrast!) post soon....

  6. I found this article on my FB feed. In less than 24h, I read all of your posts from this blog. I enjoyed all of them. I really resonated with the sound human relationships wisdom that I'm sure helped tons of people reading them. Your writing style was such a delightful bonus on top of that.
    Viceroys and Vineropes,

    1. Thank you -- I am so honored. And great sign-off, btw ;-)

  7. As a 60 year old person who has been honestly nonmonogamous my entire adult life, everything you've enumerated here describes the "open relationship" paradigm I knew from the 70s to 90s.....which - in turn - from the 90s on had the term "polyamory" to alternatively use. That fact that you seem to be indicating that what you mention falls outside the poly paradigm is puzzling to me.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and also for all the excellent perspective you've provided over the years to people in the ORC (I'm a member, and recognize your name). To respond to your comment: I don't think anything I've listed *necessarily* falls outside the poly paradigm. What I think is that the term "polyamory" is generally understood to cover a more narrow subset of the things I've listed. This is the blessing and the bane of more media attention over the last decade: popular cultural representations of polyamory have normalized a version that's rife with stereotypes and also some troubling assumptions (couple privilege, for example).

  8. Jakarta....not sure how to reply directly to you post (as far as format). Yes. I - unfortunately due to trends - agree with that, which is why I tend to simply say I am non-monogamous rather than polyamorous these days. I've also been told should identify myself as "RA". I think the distinctions that some RA's attempt to make is total bullshit, frankly. Back in the day, open relationship meant what polyamory has meant to me. I still and will always consider them interchangeable terms. That said, I totally reject other people telling me how to identify. I feel identifying as non-monogamous disempowers the ability of others to tell me what I'm doing based on that. :) The bottom line is that I'm a practitioner of open relating, which to me means that we recognize each other as selfsoveriegn adults, at liberty to decide what we do with our own heart and body. Period.

    1. "We recognize each other as selfsovereign adults, at liberty to decide what we do with our own heart and body..."

      Now that's a damn fine description of open relating! I hope you don't mind if I quote you.