My challenges with monogamy

monogamy-300x224Like 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.

  1.     I didn’t actually WANT to fuck other people. With a couple of notable exceptions, 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.
  1.     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.
  1.     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.
  1.     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:

  1.     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.

Betty White in Entertainment Weekly. FOR GATECRASHER ONE-TIME USE ONLY; DO NOT ARCHIVE Photo by Entertainment Weekly/Michael Elins Original Filename: Betty White by Micha#8321182_RGB.jpg

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.

Conversion 101

Here in Seattle, we have a large, relatively visible “alternative” community. In fact, the variety of self-identifications is so vast and nuanced that the labels often become more of an exercise in clever word-play than necessary political distinction. Don’t get me wrong, categories like “heteroflexible” and “monogamish” are perfectly viable. It’s just that “sexual identities” are becoming so prolific and specific that at some point we’re all going to have to recognize that sexuality is simply too complex, and too fluid, for labeling to be of much use.

The truth is, we’re all a bit queer, and we’re all a bit complicated, and we’re all changing all the time.

But until society is ready to embrace the true nature of sexuality, the question of conversion (dating someone outside of your self-identified group) will continue to pose difficulties for anyone on the “alternative” end of the sexual spectrum.

This is because, predictably, conversion toward the norm is considered socially acceptable, whereas conversion toward a minority position is often labeled as “predatory” and “wrong.” If a man who considers himself straight convinces a self-identified lesbian into going on a date with him, for example, his action is met with a (metaphorical or literal) round of high-fives. But if someone who identifies as gay or bisexual asks out a self-identified straight person, it is often considered perfectly acceptable to threaten the asker with violence, or even to carry out that threat.

Furthermore, fishing in foreign waters often draws accusations of treason or abandonment from within one’s group. A lesbian friend of mine, for example, found herself excluded from a number of social events because the woman she was dating was recently divorced from–gasp–a cisgendered male!

The same is true in the realm of kink vs. vanilla, and monogamy vs. Anything Else.

This is pretty unfortunate news for a lot of us. Since there are fewer fish in the proverbial pond, and it is frowned upon to venture into other ponds in search of potential partners, these isolated ponds often begin to feel terribly confining.

At some point, you may look around and realize that you’ve either already dated, or rejected on various grounds, every available option.

This is particularly true in rural areas, but can even feel that way in the heart of the urban jungle.

Furthermore, just because you share a common denominator in terms of sexual identity with the people in your pond doesn’t necessarily mean you share important values and interests outside of the bedroom. So limiting your options to people who self-identify the same way that you do isn’t necessarily the best way to find a compatible life partner.

There is good news, however. While conversion may be a tricky social maneuver, with a little practice it can be done gracefully and without causing undue offense or attracting public censure. My primary partner, for example, had never been in a non-monogamous or even monogamish relationship before we met, but he took to it like a duck to water and hasn’t looked back.

Here’s how it’s done:

1. Check your own attitude. If you think of crossing orientation lines as a big deal, that energy will quickly transfer to your PIQ, and you will both feel as though a major transgression is being committed. If, on the other hand, you take a more relaxed and casual attitude about it, your PIQ is likely to do the same. Remember, all the usual rules of attraction apply, so hold the outcome lightly, as always.

DON’T: Make assumptions about your PIQ‘s identity (“I know you’re monogamous, but…”), or point out a perceived mismatch between their behavior and their stated identity (“So… you’re ‘straight,’ but you’re hanging out at a gay bar. Riiight.”)

DO: Remember that you are offering something of value, and let your PIQ decide whether or not s/he’s interested.

2. Be honest. It’s generally the best policy, but it becomes particularly important when dealing with someone who is working under a different set of assumptions.

DON’T: Make a dramatic “confession” or list excuses for yourself right up front.

Blurting out “I’m married!” in the first few minutes of conversation, followed by a rambling, in-depth explanation about the agreements you’ve made with your spouse, and why, is a sure fire turn-off.

Giving too much information before it is asked for can frighten off someone who might have found you absolutely delightful once they got to know you, and an emotional confession puts pressure on your PIQ to relieve your apparent guilt and discomfort about your own situation. Besides, it’s just bad game.

DO: Make your situation, and your intentions, clear well before things get sexual. State the situation casually and simply, and then answer any questions your PIQ might have as they come up. For example, “Just so you know, I’m transgendered. If you’re curious about that, ask away. I’m an open book.”

NOTE: If you are in an open relationship, it’s always a good idea to encourage contact between your PIQ and your partner(s). They may not take you up on it, but knowing that option is available says more about the legitimacy of your situation than any verbal assurance you could hope to offer.

4. Allow plenty of breathing room. This may be uncharted territory for your PIQ, so move nice and slow with all the exits in full view.

DON’T: Take a bi-curious guy directly to the gay bar, or a kink-curious lady directly to a dungeon.

DO: Let your PIQ set the pace and choose the venue at first, or choose a comfortable, no-pressure environment.

5. Be brave. If you fish in foreign ponds enough, you will eventually reel in some unfortunate responses. Try not to take it as a reflection on you as a person, but rather as an indication of your PIQ‘s level of discomfort on the topic of alternative sexuality.

DON’T: Be a sore loser. Just because a PIQ turns you down doesn’t automatically make him/her bigoted or uptight, any more than your attempt makes you predatory or perverse.

DO: Be kind and respectful of other people’s journeys, and the choices they make along the way. If they aren’t up for that particular experience at this particular time, DON’T PUSH. Save your energy for someone who is, and move on with no snarky commentary.

A lot of us “alternative” types have had to deal with “normies” trying to convert us more often than we’d care to remember. Whether it was our parents telling us that our identity was a phase we would soon grow out of, our friends telling us that if we just met the right person we could have a “normal” relationship, or potential mates trying to convince us to change our identities and desires to suit their needs.

It feels shitty, right? It feels disrespectful, right?

Follow the golden rule and do unto others as you would have them do unto you — or more to the point: DON’T do unto others as you have resented having done unto you. Just offer the opportunity, and leave it up to your PIQ to decide whether or not to pursue it.

In short, the key to success is for your connection to be so powerful and valuable it simply overshadows labeling altogether. If it isn’t, and it doesn’t, move on. It’s a big sea out there.