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.
It still amazes me how hard this breaks people. I think your family is awesome and the little dude is a form of cute that rivals my daughter. I would totally kill for a third shift to step in at our house. Our girl is cute, but oh man do mommy and daddy need to have some time off, and it just never happens. Your partners are unbelievably lucky to have you.
Of course, you’re hardly the first household this concept happened in for me. Even in college, my friends who had a daughter who had a mommy, a daddy, and a Suzi had things way better off. Now that config has changed again, but it’s still three parents, and now three kids and it just works out to so much more sanity. People joke about “Geez, we need a wife” meaning “we need someone else to stay home and keep on top of all of the stuff.” Yet somehow, this is beyond consideration. Silly monkeys!
I had never heard about Poly before I dated a very nice, wonderful guy, Kevin. His absolutely gorgeous girlfriend was long distance for a year and was totally okay with me seeing her beau. It was, and still is, a super cool way of loving more than one person to me. I think if I had understood that it was an available option earlier in my life, things would have gone very differently for someone I loved very much but ended up cheating on me. I think Poly would really have helped him be who he wanted to be, finding multiple people to care for his needs.
As it is, I have other methods of loving more than one person that allow me to be monogamous. I think this works for me and the hubby, though I recognize that mileage may vary per person. Even for us, from time to time.
Well done Chris!
My poly family has been dealing with some out-of-the-blue backlash from my bio-family suddenly being very outspoken after knowing about my lifestyle for a little over a year. This has resulted in so much stress that it aggravated medical conditions that I am just now, six months later, getting under control.
Good luck, and I’m very glad you stayed.
Thank you so much for writing this. My family is in a hard spot right now, and this was beautiful and uplifting to read – just to feel not-alone, and accepted. Like we’re OK. It’s everything I want to scream at the at unaccepting world, particularly my in-laws.
We’re a MMF poly family with three adults, two kids, and another one the way. I’m the hinge in the vee. Because two of us were legally married for several years before our other member joined, and we had two children together, we often just pass as “a family and a roommate” to family members not-in-the-know, or “very amicable divorced couple and stepdad” to strangers. We’re out to all our friends, some family, coworkers, etc, but the Traditional Husband’s (TH) Catholic parents were always just allowed to believe whatever they wanted. They never asked, we never spilled the beans. We didn’t want to be accused of “rubbing anything in people’s faces,” as poly people so often are for acknowledging their reality. But, we bought a house together a year ago, go on vacations together, do holidays together, and the in-laws are not dumb people, so we figured they had an inkling.
Then we decided to have a baby, and Non-Traditional Husband (NH) is the father, so this required being truly honest. I know we should have ripped the band-aid off years ago, clarified something in a banal moment so they had time to get over it. But we weren’t actually planning on trying for another year – we thought we had time. It just happened quicker than we expected. So, we told them, like you’re supposed to. Face-to-face. In terms of love, family, happiness, ethics, and consent. With back-up literature and resources at hand. And then the world ended.
We know they still might come around, and that if they do, it will take time. But mostly, we are so sad and disappointed. We thought they were the kind of Christians who love others, even those who are different. Who cheered when the Pope seemed to say gay marriage was OK. Who adopted two kids of their own, embraced grandchildren who were brought into the family in blended marriages. Who always told TH that he could always be honest with them, and they would support him no matter what. Who were also scientists, and smart, and educated, and open-minded. We were wrong – at least so far – and it is crushing. They refused the information we tried to share. They referred to it as a “lifestyle” they can’t support. They’re disgusted, don’t understand how we’re bringing a child into this, compared it to a broken home, said it’s “not normal” and “not what you do.” They said we could never tell their other son, because *he* would be so enraged he might hurt NH, and potentially never speak to *them* again. When they texted their teen-aged daughter the news, she told us we were horrible effed-up people she was cutting out of her life, and we would never be allowed to be near her own future children.
And all because we wanted to share happy news – that we love our family, and it’s getting a little bigger.
This week sucks. But your post made it a little better. Thank you.