Poly: A Needle Through the Eye of Monogamy’s Beliefs
Last month, I tried to quit Grounded Parents, but my fellow writers and editors would have none of it.
One of the reasons I was worried about my future here was how nervous Renee has been lately about the exposure that Grounded Parents gives to our family. When I first announced that I would be writing for a skeptical, feminist parenting blog, we agreed that pseudonyms would be sufficient.
Then we got the wake-up call of hate mail sent to our private e-mails about her choice to have a home birth.
My family isn’t really “out” with the poly thing. Our friends and close family know, and a few people who have realized that it’s really weird how long that roommate Chris has been living with them have probably put it together. But most people don’t know, and most people don’t handle it well. The antagonism we get about being poly has ended friendships, rocked familial relationships, and caused any number of wary spouses to keep us at arm’s length.
Most poly people I know aren’t trying to change the world to poly. There are always some in the younger crowd and the new crowd who think everyone should be poly so we could all go wild fucking each other or something (god please don’t make me hear about the bonobos again), but the groups that foist poly as being somehow superior or more evolved usually get as much shit for their elitism from the mainstream poly community as they do from the world at large. Most of us who are poly would be more than content simply to see our relationship choices viewed as LEGITIMATE by a world that favors monogamy.
If you want to get a room full of sex-positive progressives arguing, ask them if poly is a preference or an orientation. Many view poly as something that is as much a part of who they are as whatever gender happens to carbonate their hormones. They use much of the same vernacular: they can’t help it, it’s who they are, it’s the way they’re wired, etc. Attempts at monogamy make them miserable if they’re ethical and lead to cheating if they’re not, and many questioned their human worth before the idea of poly came onto their radar.
I’m not one of those types, so I can’t speak beyond what I’ve heard. I learned to be poly. It was a long, hard lesson, and my ex-wife was more than a little coercive about it. For me, poly is just a thing I’m doing because I’m with poly people.
What I do know is that with a few notable (and oft ridiculed) exceptions, most poly people I’ve met aren’t disparaging monogamy. They view it as a legitimate choice. Some might think that the modern cultural expectation of forty or fifty years of monogamy is a little unrealistic, but they don’t impugn anyone’s quest to try. All we really want is to be treated with the same courtesy.
We are not.
Monogamy is one of those bits of our culture that is so deep and ingrained that we don’t usually even acknowledge it. Like patriarchy or heteronormativity, some people use the word “natural” and never notice that their forest homes have been built into trees like the Ewok village.
True story: one of my ex-wife’s co-workers was all too eager to help her (my ex-wife) cheat on me. This co-worker acted as a co-conspirator in getting the ex into a risque rendezvous and proposing some distraction to keep me waylaid. When my wife corrected the misconception, told the person that I knew all about what was going on, and that I was okay with it, the co-worker became disgusted, weirded out, and didn’t want to have anything to do with my ex-wife anymore. Helping her cheat was a squee-worthy venture–honest, consensual non-monogamy was icky.
I bet this woman never even stopped to think how weird that is.
I could never list all the ways in which monogamy is reinforced in our culture: the validity of jealousy as an emotion caused by others rather than about the person feeling it, contemporary media pairing everyone off or using love triangles for conflict, the idea that one person could (and SHOULD) provide for the every need of another, the idea that love will make you incapable of loving another (in some cases the idea that love will make you incapable of being attracted to another), the lens with which non-monogamous folk are portrayed in most mainstream media–as perverts pursuing their prurient interests, the value judgment of “failure” when a poly relationship ends. (Man, I have to bite my tongue not to blame the monogamy when my friends split up.) Even the zeal with which monogamous people go OUT OF THEIR WAY to announce that poly is something they “could never do” or “isn’t for them” whenever a poly relationship comes up…in any context…ever. It’s all around us, and even the most successful poly people fall into these assumptions from time to time.
My family of three adults navigates a world built for two all the time. And don’t even get me started on the reactions I get when people find out I’m not Tom’s father. (“We just got our head wrapped around the idea that dad could be a primary caregiver, and now you want us to accept that other men can be too?”)
Poly isn’t just a matter of “another, equally valid way of doing things.” Monogamy is so ingrained that most wouldn’t even think to question it, and those that do are instantly dismissed. Monogamy is natural. It’s the default. It’s normal. (Sound familiar?) It goes beyond “right.” It goes to the point that most can’t even IMAGINE another way, or worse, they perceive another way as a threat to their core assumptions about how relationships ought to fulfill them. It drives a stake through the heart of the popular sentiment that there is one person out there for everyone. Poly is the antimatter of soul mates.
The core assumption of monogamy isn’t “do what works.” It precludes that kind of wiggle room. The assumption is that monogamy is the way life is simply meant to be, that it is not just right but literally the way things ought to be–perhaps the only way they really can be. This unswerving assumption is cast into doubt by even the simple act of accepting someone doing something different.
What surprises me isn’t that most of the world has this mentality. That’s pretty yawn worthy. What surprises me is when skeptics/social justice types do. I’m not going to wag my finger and say “skeptics oughta…” or “social justice types oughta….” I don’t think everyone needs to do a stint of poly to really know they’re monogamous. That’s unfair and silly and has never been my bag. But it does surprise me that groups who question everything from monolithic worldwide beliefs in metaphysical reality to the claims of someone who says they can heal with crystals, don’t question one of the MOST fundamental ideas of those religious institutions. That while interrogating and scrutinizing the moral codes of every archaic religion, they let monogamy simply slip unnoticed beneath the radar. Or that social justice types questioning gender roles, the very concept of gender, patriarchy, and heteronormativity never thought to examine one of the most heteronormative, most patrilineal property-right-based social constructs.
I always wince just a little bit harder when those folks pull the usual. It means that even with pseudonyms and a good community, I have to double-check everything I write with Renee. I can’t just blithely blog about my family. We live in a world where people get doxxed and parents are investigated if their kids walk home alone from the park. And if for some reason we hit the wrong judge, poly might be a factor. The fact that Tom has to exhaust three humans’ worth of patience before he runs out of willing readers for “The Monster at the End of This Book,” and always has a fresh-faced tag-in waiting, might not matter to someone who thinks we’re teaching someone how to violate the natural order of things.
Hopefully I can still think of topics to blog about, or be very oblique with my stories. But because of the world we live in, and poly’s position in it as a needle through the eye of monogamy’s core assumptions about human nature, I’ll have to be much, much more careful about personal stories. Even here.