Myths and Misconceptions about Polyamory
Hi, I’m Yessenia, and I’m a firm believer in ethical non-monogamy.
Those blessed souls in my inner sanctum are aware of this, but I hide in plain, heteronormative sight with my male-bodied partner and my female-to-whatever bodied “best friend” for my genetic progenitors, employers and the like. The phrase ‘boyfriend’ is helpful; today, one coworker even expressed relief that, although my haircut makes me look both like a man and like a lesbian, I have a boyfriend and am therefore straight.
She’s kind of a lawsuit waiting to happen, but I digress.
Because I’m the one with ladyparts, a lot of the misconceptions I’ve encountered relate to women’s stereotypically subordinate and pliant role in heterosuggestive dyads, and the delightfully patronizing assumptions this generates about what kind of woman I must be to put up with this from my obligatory dudely owner.
1.Polyamorous is a euphemism for player.
Because I am the fairer sex, the way people have broached this topic with me tends to involve soft lighting, small words, and a sympathetic voice. Don’t I realize he’s manipulating me? What a shrinking violet I must be to believe him when he says he’s committed! Players only love you when they’re playing, you know.
Why it’s a myth: If a person is just a player, it’s much easier to, well, be a player. Being a player implies a level of deceit; the mark doesn’t know s/he’s being played, doesn’t know about other marks, and would strongly object to this treatment if she knew. So if I’m being played, my partner is doing a piss-poor job of it, what with all the principled telling me about things.
Why it’s frustrating: It’s hard to open about your actual problems when you’re suddenly put on the defensive. I bumped up against the assumption of monogamy a few times while trying to find a therapist. One candidate heard that we were still “lovers” (barf. His word. I’m famously incapable of love) after my male-bodied partner moved out. He, shaking his head, said, “You know, Yessenia…a lot of the time, when someone moves out, it’s because they want to date other people.”
I said, “I know,” and once that cat was out of the bag, up the bookshelf and perched on the wainscotting over the door, there was nothing in my psyche that couldn’t be traced back to the profoundly low self-worth I must have.
2.Polyamorous couples aren’t committed.
Why it’s a myth: One benefit to presumptive monogamy is that you have a built-in parachute if you wanna bail: sleep with someone new. To enter into a polyamorous relationship is to commit to a person that you will not break up with them merely for being attracted to/intimate with a new (or current) person.
There’s definitely emotional risk involved in being poly, so it wouldn’t really make sense to take on that risk without wanting to commit to the other person. Otherwise, any of the other options – being a player, dating, monogamy – are easier than the talking, and then more talking, and then how about some talking? that comes with being poly.
Why it’s frustrating: It holds polyamorous relationships to a higher standard. I’m allowed to fuck around with serial monogamy without calling all monogamous relationships’ level of commitment into question. I’m allowed to have serious emotional injury as a result of monogamous relationships without having it be used as proof that monogamy itself is a bad idea.
Polyamorous groups have varying levels of commitment between the different people in them. If anything, we’re more committed because we’re laboring under the stereotype that we’re less committed, so we’re more likely to over-commit to someone we just so we can prove to ourselves that we’re as worthy as monogamous couples that don’t have to live up to that standard.
3. You’re just in it for the sex.
Ha, well. If only.
Why it’s a myth: I were in it for the sex, there’s again many easier ways of obtaining sex.
Why it’s frustrating: No, I’m not in it for quantity; I’m in it for quality. When I find a person I connect with, that makes me happy, and who makes my knees weak, why in the hell would I give them up just because I met a second or third or fourth person that also made me happy? Why should I resent someone else for sharing my good taste in partners?
Tangent: This is what I don’t get about mandatory monogamy. Let’s talk about cookies. Say your friend makes the best cookies. You ask hir to come over and show you hir secret recipe, and sie does. OMG it was nutmeg! I had such a good time tonight, ttyl! As you shut the door behind hir, you think gosh, I’m so tired, but happy that now, whenever I make cookies for anyone else in my life, they will be better cookies, for I have learned this new trick from hir. Yay!
Then you hear the doorbell. It’s hir other friend, and sie punches you in the face. “I’m the only one who gets to know how sie makes hir cookies! Sie made a sacred vow to only make cookies with me for the rest of hir life because SIE LOVES ME!”
4. So, you all have sex together?
Why it’s a misconception: Some people do, but not all couples who have sex with a third or fourth person are polyamorous, and most polyamorous couples don’t get it on en masse. It’s like having a lot of good friends: I can go rock climbing with Bridgette, practice vegan cooking with Sam, watch terrible zombie movies with Leslie, and all the while, realize that not all my friends/partners will be interested in the same thing. Maybe my friends will meet each other; maybe not. And that’s ok.
Why it’s frustrating: Yea, “so, you guys have lots of threesomes?” is about on the level of asking someone who just came out to you as gay, “So, what is it about anal sex that you like the most?” If I’ve just told you something incredibly personal about me, the last thing you should do is start asking even more incredibly personal questions you wouldn’t dream of disrespecting your heterosexual and/or monogamous friends with. Like, seriously, unless I’m inviting you to our next naked hot tub party,* the fuck business is it of yours whether we have threesomes?
5. What, one partner isn’t good enough for you?
Actually, yes. This isn’t a misconception! I do believe that one partner will never be enough for me, anymore than one friend will be enough. I want ALL THE FRIENDS.
They will be valued. They will be accepted to the best of my ability. They will be loved. But will they complete me? God, I hope not. What a simple puzzle I would be.
It’s not really a judgment in the way that saying that so-and-so is a ‘bad husband’ is.
Why it’s frustrating: One challenge often faced in strict heteronormative monogamy is that over time, whether you want to or not, you’ll start expecting your partner to be enthusiastic about all your hobbies, thoughts and passions. When they inevitably aren’t, it can feel like a personal attack or a judgment.
“Oh dear, my better half hates my sweet potato latkes? It must be because they don’t taste good.”
With a friend, you’re more likely to assume that they just don’t like sweet potatoes all that much, rather than that your latkes are objectively terrible. The friendship model is generally less toxic than the ‘relationship-ending-in-lifelong-marriage’ model we have thrust upon us from a young age.
With polyamory, I don’t need my partner to be everything. Can this be true in monogamy? Sure. But I think it’s a bit harder, at least in my experience – and who knows, perhaps that’s because I’m just naturally polyamorous. YMMV! But monogamy does make the opportunity cost of staying with someone who has no interest in your latkes or is turned off by your transmasculine bedroom antics that much higher.
A quote from the show “Lie to Me” says it best:
- Eli Loker: You know, my father always used to say that there are four rules for getting married: you need a woman who loves you unconditionally, a woman who will always challenge you, a woman who you always want to make love to and, most important of all, you have to make sure that none of those women ever meet.
- (Ria stares at him)
- Eli Loker: Wasn’t really a joke when my father said it, either. It’s more like autobiography.
The only difference between that opinion and mine is that your different partners should meet, and talk, and get to know each other, and build a level of trust so when the shit does hit the fan, and the jealousy monster shows up with a six pack and some rage, we can talk about it like adults, and with the goal of everyone maintaining their relationships.
6. Polyamory – so you’re Mormon? Isn’t that inherently degrading and oppressive towards women?
What Mormons traditionally did (and in some sects, still do) is properly termed polygyny – as in multiple women, one man – or polygamy – multiple marriages. Such arrangements aren’t necessarily oppressive – polyamorous arrangements can have unintentional periods of polygyny because reasons – but where there is an overt rule barring women from having multiple husbands or – gasp – wives of their own, it can get incredibly oppressive. Any religion that commands polygyny generally does so out of a theological commitment to male supremacy.
With polyamory, at least as this Internet Atheist conceives of it, that’s not necessarily the case. No grand dudebro in the sky cares who I make latkes for. No one in any of the relationships is the boss of the rest of them. People have relationships with each other.
Now, that’s not to say that some of the relationships might take precedence over others to the people in them. For instance, I have a primary partner, and then I have other partners that I care for, but with whom I just don’t want or need that level of commitment from them right now. So my primary partner generally gets top billing when it comes to things like weekend plans, holidays, etc., but that has nothing to do with our physical sex or social role, and everything to do with our specific history.
*Naked hot tub parties not a guaranteed result of polyamory.