First things first: I grew up in a household with faithful, married parents. Both sets of grandparents were married for decades before my grandfathers passed away. So, I was socialized (like most of us) into a worldview of committed, monogamous marriage as the norm for relationships. And the marriages I saw were “successful”.
I start there because whenever someone expresses a nontraditional view of relationships (as I am about to do), a little suspicion creeps in about their family of origin, divorce, broken homes, etc. In other words, there has to be some painful reason for divestment in normative relationship models. That is not the case for me. My reasons are borne out of an exceedingly positive view of relationships rather than a negative one, and I want to outline my evolution on this topic here.
“How do you feel about non-monogamy?” In 2011, my partner asked me this question about one month into our relationship. I said, “I have no ethical objection to it, but I don’t think I share well. It’s not for me.”
Fast forward to 2016. We are sitting at our kitchen table (we now live together) with colored markers, creating charts that depict our boundaries and expectations concerning (hypothetical) relationships with others. We come a mighty long way!
Here is what I’ve learned about myself: I deeply appreciate people. I am drawn to a diversity of people for a variety of reasons, and I value the ability to connect substantively with people in all kinds of ways. Even when I am in a beautiful, life-enriching partnership (as I am now), I still desire a multitude of rich connections in my life. This came as a surprise to me 2 or 3 years into our relationship, but it was an important realization. Most of those rich connections are platonic or quasi-familial, but I notice and respect my capacity for nonplatonic connections, as well. I do not feel shame for the bigness of my heart.
Here is what I’ve learned about partnership: The most amazing person in the world can not be everything to anybody. As humans, we have complex emotional, physical, and spiritual (to name a few) needs. I do not think it is reasonable or healthy to expect one person to completely meet these needs all the time. We can respond to this reality by conditioning ourselves to live with some amount of constant, low-grade unfulfillment, or we can explore other ways to increase our fulfillment. Consciousness, creativity, and consent open up other possibilities for us in that regard. Dispersing our needs amongst multiple people may reduce the stress any one individual feels. I should add here that I do not believe in “the one”. I believe there are many with whom I could be compatible, and every relationship takes work. You just decide where and how to devote your time and energy.
Here’s what I’ve learned about society: Historically, monogamy has not been the standard. Historically, economics–not love or even companionship–has been the driving force behind the relationships we now call partnership. Romance, emotional satisfaction, and equality are relatively new expectations in this realm of life. This historical perspective ought to give us pause when considering the “norm”of long-term, monogamous relationships.
To be clear: I am not against monogamy. If relationship partners consciously decide that that arrangement works best for them, then I respect and celebrate the life they pursue together.
However, far too often, we take monogamy for granted as a given. I certainly did. In my mind, “legitimate” relationships were committed, monogamous ones. As I’ve reflected on myself, my life, and my relationships, I’ve come to view “legitimate” relationships as those that are consensual between adults who do no harm.
There is certainly no shortage of ethical concerns when it comes to non-monogamy. I won’t pretend to know the full range of those concerns, and I don’t have the experience to speak to them here in a meaningful way (although there some good books out there). Anyone who seriously ventures into the domain of non-monogamy has some serious and sustained work to do on themselves and on their relationships in order to create healthy, ethical relationships in every direction. Frankly, I think it’s a lot of work, and I am unsure if I am up to the task, even as I philosophically embrace it.
I want to end by stressing that non-monogamy is not necessarily about sex. Sure, plenty of people do non-monogamy in an effort to experience more variety and more sexual pleasure. However, that is not always everyone’s motivation, and the focus on sexual “licentiousness” is part of the stigma. For me, thinking about non-monogamy is primarily a matter of the heart; it is a matter of giving and receiving love abundantly. Love need not be scarce to be special. It is a matter of autonomy and self-determination. (Old civic laws based on property and old religious mores based on who knows what no longer call the shots.) It is matter of believing that there is more than one way to live a good life, and there are lots of incredible people on this planet with whom I would be so privileged to connect.