Like a lot of polyamorous people, I have a fraught relationship with monogamy. First off, it’s always been imposed upon me externally, via social context or romantic partner. And second, I have historically “failed” at the version that was presented to me as acceptable, to disastrous and occasionally life-threatening results. Thus I have long assumed I would live out my days splitting time between multiple partners who probably also had other partners, and believed myself content with this scenario.
But a while back, I started feeling pulled toward exclusivity. The idea of focusing all my romantic energy toward a single partner became deeply compelling to me. But because I had so much of my identity tied up in being “poly,” I fought that pull. I reminded myself that monogamy goes against human nature, or at any rate my nature if we are judging by history. I told myself it was an unrealistic expectation that I could ever find one person who would embrace the weirdness of my particular situation (i.e. I’m a not-quite-single Mom living next door to my “wasband,” his girlfriend, and their daughter, who I also think of as my kid). I thought it would be a betrayal to my community, an abandoning of my identity, and a scary and dangerous undertaking.
And then it occurred to me that these are exactly the kinds of bullshit arguments people come up with to squelch a desire to open up a relationship.
Without realizing it, I had adopted a rigid, dogmatic adherence to a single relationship style and had become unwilling to consider the possibility that it was no longer right for me.
It didn’t help that the fellow I felt most pulled toward—we’ll call him “John”— also had a long history of infidelity within purportedly monogamous relationships, and was showing no obvious signs of interest in making an exclusive go of it with me. Or did it…?
One day it occurred to me that perhaps this was an ideal case study to explore my mono-curiosity. After all, the thing I had always hated about monogamy in the past was that it was being thrust upon me from outside of myself. This situation was exactly the opposite of that. I had no reason to do this except my own desire to do it, and there would be no external pressure to continue, were I to abort mission.
So one morning, getting ready for work after having spent the night at John’s place, I announced that I wanted to stop fucking other people. His face registered confusion, skepticism, incredulity, and finally amusement. “Ooookay,” I recall him saying, “Why?”
I realized, as I started to list off the reasons, that I had never actually articulated the full list, even to myself. It was more robust than I had realized.
- I didn’t actually WANT to fuck other people. Those interactions contributed little to my life beyond an added layer of physical and emotional risk. Yet I continued to pursue them out of boredom, loneliness, escapism, insecurity (i.e. to have a back-up plan), a desire for emotional leverage (i.e. to make John jealous), or simply to fit the narrative I had created about myself as a non-monogamous person.
- I was finally confronting the irony that my polyamory was rooted in a dangerous kind of romanticism; deep down I still believed that THE ONE was going to come along and sweep me off my feet, and if I was in an imperfect monogamous relationship with some non-magical human I would miss my chance at true love.
- I had experimented with a wide range of polyamorous relationship configurations, and with the polar opposite, celibacy. But the middle ground of voluntary monogamy remained unexplored.
- I wanted to connect on a very deep level with another person, to learn the art of genuine intimacy with someone just as flawed, and just as awesome, as I am. And, at least for me, that requires concentration.
And, all intellectualizing aside, perhaps the most important reason:
- I was in love with John. So, I wanted to focus all my romantic and sexual energies on him.
And so it began.
Soon after followed The Challenges. I’ve always known monogamy was challenging, but I understood the central challenge to be a futile fight against one’s biological instincts. So not only did I see the secondary challenges of monogamy as not worth the trouble, I thought of them as actively harmful.
Now that I had a genuine personal interest in an exclusive romantic/sexual partnership, I discovered that the real central challenge of monogamy, at least for me, wasn’t resisting the temptation to fuck other people. Rather, it was confronting all the ways in which promiscuity had become an emotional crutch for me. And it became clear that taking on that challenge, and all the secondary challenges that stemmed from it, would not only be worthwhile, it was my only path to any sort of healthy relationship.
Thankfully, I had already confronted a lot of the ways in which my self-esteem was tied up in the desire, attention, ecstasy, and appreciation of others during my four-month celibacy stint that began almost exactly a year ago. But it quickly became clear that I still had a long way to go on that front, and that confronting those issues while in an intimate relationship with someone had it’s own peculiar pitfalls.
Challenge #1: Jealousy
The old green-eyed monster began to rear its tiresome head almost immediately. I had expected this. I’ve done enough study on human sexual psychology to know that jealousy is based in insecurity, and I had just cut off the mainline of ego-stroking I had relied on most of my life to combat it. And unlike when I was celibate, I now had a terribly tempting screen on which to project those insecurities to super-human proportions.
I found myself indulging in behaviors I had resented from past partners: demanding declarations of love, fishing for validation, trying to catch my partner cheating, and of course, losing my goddamn mind when I found even the most circumstantial evidence to support that hypothesis. This was especially unfair given that I never communicated anything resembling a boundary around my partner’s sexual behavior. I had simply declared my own intention not to fuck other people.
To his credit, though, John did not play that card. Nor did he indulge the drama by offering any of the emotional concessions I was demanding: reassurance, promises, evidence of his fidelity, etc. Instead, he simply reminded me of what I already knew: that nothing he could do or say would ever be enough.
I knew he was right, and that Possessive Partner was a shit role to play. So I had two options: I could take a leap of faith and choose to trust John, or I could break up with him. Spoiler alert: I chose trust. So far, so good.
That’s when I realized that polyamory had effectively insulated me from my long-standing trust issues. With multiple lovers, I never needed to fully trust any one person not to betray and abandon me, and thus I maintained a comfortable illusion of security. Now that it was just John, I was working without a net, and it was terrifying.
Happily, though, confronting those fears with a partner is a lot less wretched than doing it alone. And little by little, I’m building the kind of security that comes only from experiencing the benefits of well-placed trust. Which is a much more secure security indeed.
Challenge #2: Getting my needs met
Another reason I have long identified as poly is that I embrace the reality that no one person is going to fulfill my every need. But in practical terms that’s meant building a kind of Frankensteinian conglomerate of desirable partner traits in the form of what could be referred to as a harem. One partner to satisfy me sexually, another to be my intellectual equal and challenge me to improve myself, another to provide emotional support, and yet another to be a companion / partner in crime to laugh and be silly with. And even when my harem was complete, STILL I wasn’t content. Still I had needs that went unmet.
But it wasn’t until I was monogamous by choice that I realized why: because it isn’t just that no ONE person is going to fulfill my every need. It’s that my every need is never going to get fulfilled. At least not by any kind of external source. It became clear that I was going to have to look inward to discover what was missing and figure out how to create it for myself.
Challenge #3: The scarcity myth
The next challenge I came up against was time and energy. As in, he didn’t suddenly, magically have any more of it to offer just because I was now focusing all of mine on him. And I started to feel annoyed, frustrated, and slighted that he chose to prioritize things like work and self-care over me.
Again, I took a long, hard look at my behavior. Did I really want to be that co-dependent lover who demands every moment of her partner’s time, even at the cost of his/my/our well-being? Did I want to view his time and attention as a finite resource for which I was in constant competition?
Hell no. That’s exactly the kind of bullshit I became poly in order to avoid.
I want, and have always wanted, to be the lover who encourages my partner to take care of his own needs and to live exactly as he pleases. I just happen to be so fucking awesome that he chooses to spend time with me anyway.
So, I decided to focus my energy on filling my own life with awesomeness, and stop worrying about how much time we were or were not spending together. After all, that’s exactly what I would be doing if we weren’t together.
And this is where my celibacy training has really come in handy. When in doubt, I ask myself:
WWCAD: What Would Celibate Adrienne Do?
In other words: what would I do if I didn’t have this other person to lean on / blame / hook into playing out my cyclical psychodrama? Try doing THAT instead.
At one point, I even attempted to downgrade our relationship to “friends with benefits” so that I would be forced to stop projecting all my expectations of what a “boyfriend” is and does onto him. To my great surprise, rather than relief that I was finally over this silly monogamy experiment, he expressed hurt and disappointment. It hadn’t been a test, but that was, as it turns out, the answer my heart needed to hear. After that, I was IN.
I’ve still got a lot of healing to do. A lot of radical self-love to express. A lot of fears to face down and challenges to see through. But for the first time in my life, I am confident that it can, should, and will be done. Not because I think John is “the one.” But because I’ve finally admitted that I am the one. The one with the power to fulfill my own needs and create genuine intimacy with another imperfect human.
And so far? I gotta say: intimacy is pretty fucking awesome.