How can a monogamous person be poly-friendly?
I originally encountered this question in a livejournal conversation, and followed up with a quick brainstormed list. The following list is a rewrite that expands on a number of points and incorporates the comments from the livejournal community.
Please read this piece in a constructive and positive manner. It is really intended in a spirit of friendship and cooperation. I am not saying that all monogamous people must do all these things right now – just that every time you do one of these things, it really makes our lives easier and we really appreciate it. Many of these things are small and easy considerations. My hope is that monogamous people who are new to the idea of polyamory will use this list as a reference guide to avoid many of the usual monogamous/polyamorous interaction pitfalls.
As you may notice, there is a lot of things that monogamous people can do to be poly-friendly. As it turns out, this is because the culture at large is definitely poly-unfriendly, and so there are a lot of assumptions, stigmas, and practices that make life difficult for poly people.
While this list is addressed to monogamous people, I encourage poly types to read it. We do not suddenly shed our monogamous assumptions or history when we become poly, and so we make many mistakes with each other that resemble the mistakes monogamous people make with poly people.
Feel free to copy, edit, print, or distribute this list. I am producing it as a community resource. If you could include some attribution (say, a link back to this blog) I would appreciate it.
If you have no idea what polyamory is, take a look at this website before you continue reading.
Attitude and Etiquette
Be secure in your monogamy. Unfortunately our culture rarely discusses monogamy directly, so we fail to see the many ways it can be valuable. Identify these for yourself. If you have not learned to value your monogamy, being around poly people or ideology will make you insecure and defensive. (Indeed, reading the rest of this essay might have that effect.)
Consider whether polyamory might be a good idea for you. Chances are, the answer is no. However, having made that decision for yourself will allow you to deal with poly people on a secure foundation of self-knowledge. If the answer is yes, then check out some “how to start being polyamorous” resources.
Do not get defensive when faced with polyamory. This is a common reaction for monogamous people when faced with a nonmonogamous alternative, especially if they have not consciously chosen monogamy for themselves. Remember that if you are not polyamorous, then polyamory is really not about you. Learn to recognize when you might be feeling defensive, and try not to take it out on poly people. We get a lot of really negative reactions and put-downs due to monogamous defensiveness, and this can really wear on us. Try to stay positive.
Do not assume that if your monogamous partner/lover/spouse meets a poly person, they will suddenly be seduced by polyamory. Polyamory is not some dark siren call, and your partner presumably knows what they want to the extent that exposure to different relationship styles will not suddenly change them. If you have not sat down with your partner and discussed your mutual commitment to monogamy, then perhaps doing so would help you feel secure about their monogamy.
Recognize that there is a cultural discourse that paints polyamorous people as sick, sinners, immature, maladjusted, slutty, nymphomaniac, or otherwise problematic. Remember that poly people are constantly being told these things, and it takes a toll. Never repeat any of these stigmas. If you find you associate some of these things with nonmonogamy, recognize that you have prejudiced views, and try to change your attitude.
Try to be helpful and supportive to your polyamorous friends. If someone comes to you with a nonmonogamy problem, listen and try to understand their situation. Do not dismiss them out of hand because their interest in nonmonogamy seems alien to you. If it sounds like they have not been seeking out advice via polyamory community or forums, recommend that they do so.
Sometimes poly people will put down monogamy. This is especially common with people new to polyamory. This is a defensive reaction. Typically of these people have been fighting (and losing against) monogamy and monogamous assumptions their whole lives. They can develop a certain negativity about monogamy as a result. Try not to take it personally, while at the same time not letting them insult you outright. Really, they are talking about themselves: monogamy has failed them.
Stop assuming that the people you meet are monogamous. This assumption is wrong at least some of the time. If you add up the swingers, poly people, people in open relationships, and the wide variety of unnamed arrangements, you end up with a small but real percentage of the population. Because they face censure, nonmonogamous people often will not advertise their nonmonogamy. Viewing everyone you meet as possibly nonmonogamous is a good exercise in challenging the base idea that monogamy is inevitable. Also, do not assume that the monogamous people you meet are happily monogamous. Most are, but a real chunk of them are not, as evidenced by the rates of infidelity.
If you meet someone who is dissatisfied with monogamy or having trouble with monogamy, mention polyamory (or other types of negotiated nonmonogamy) to them as a possibility. Lots of people only become polyamorous later in life because they did not know it was a possibility when they were younger. You may be doing them a huge favor.
Recognize that you gain certain privileges from being monogamous. We live in a monogamous world. Friends and relatives take your relationships seriously. You do not have to fear for your job or the custody of your children because of your relationship structure. You do not have to weigh the difficulties of being closeted (on this matter) versus the dangers of coming out. You see your personal relationship structure in pretty much every book you read or movie you watch. Unless the mainstream disapproves of you for some other reason, you are praised from every quarter (clergy, doctors, psychologists, reporters) for having the right sort of relationship. Remember that polyamorous people do not have any of these advantages, and we sometimes have to spend a lot of effort to achieve things that monogamous people take for granted.
When you invite people to events, remember the possibility that they might be polyamorous. For weddings, parties, and holidays, try to accommodate their multiple partners. If you are holding an event in the LBGTQ or BDSM communities, understand that some of your attendees will probably be polyamorous. If you are holding a “singles” event in any context, consider making it an “availables” event so that poly people who have partners but are still looking can attend.
Check out poly resources of various sorts: online, books, etc. This serves two purposes. Not only do you get to know better what it is like to be poly, but many poly relationship techniques (like managing jealousy or learning to communicate better) are really helpful in monogamous relationships. Because we are facing the difficulties of being nonmonogamous in a monogamous world, poly people have built up a strong base of relationship knowledge, analysis, and techniques that are not available in mainstream culture.
Assumptions About Polyamorous Relationships
Don’t assume that you know anything about polyamory – unless you’ve been doing it, you really don’t. Polyamory is a series of subcultures that are not recognized by the mainstream, so there is no way to learn about it aside from practicing it or immersing yourself in a polyamorous scene. If you do not have this experience, own your lack of knowledge and start from the assumption that poly people know polyamory better than you. Take an attitude of “ignorant but willing to learn”. Never instruct poly people as to how their polyamory works – even if you have lots of experience, chances are it works differently for them than you.
Polyamory is not like the nonmonogamy you see on television. It is not cheating, playing the field, hedonism, swinging, or patriarchal polygamy. Polyamory is rarely represented in popular media, and when it does show up, it tends to be heavily misrepresented. Any ideas about nonmonogamy that you have learned via popular culture are likely wrong – do not trust this knowledge.
Start from the assumption that polyamory can and does work. There are in fact large numbers of poly people in arrangements that do work. The idea that polyamory is impossible is a defense mechanism that monogamous people use to avoid considering the possibility that polyamory might work for them. Don’t do this. Along similar lines, do not assume that polyamory is somehow intrinsically difficult or complicated. For many of us, polyamory is much easier than monogamy.
Do not assume that jealousy is impossible to overcome. Again, this is a defensive mechanism that monogamous people use to dismiss nonmonogamy out of hand. Some poly people don’t get jealous, and others learn to manage or deprogram their jealousy. Jealousy may in fact be intractable for you. But perhaps you should consider this a problem – jealousy can be an issue even in monogamous relationships. Or, perhaps jealousy is less of an issue than you think. Often people are surprised at how easy it is to manage jealousy with sufficient incentive.
If a poly person breaks up or has a bad relationship experience, do not assume it is because polyamory must not work. Do not tell them that they failed because of polyamory. Monogamous people break up all the time, but that doesn’t prove that monogamy is doomed to failure. Similarly, if a poly person decides to become monogamous, don’t assume that all poly people are just fooling themselves. People move back and forth between monogamy and polyamory all the time for reasons of their own, and such movement does not say anything about the viability of monogamy or polyamory.
Think about how you value relationships. Do you only consider monogamous relationships to be worthwhile or serious? Do you see nonmonogamy as a sign that the relationship is not serious or “real”, but rather just playing around somehow? If so, recognize your relationship valuations as prejudiced and try to change them.
Rethink what it means for a relationship to be committed. Many monogamous people equate commitment with monogamy, and assume that without monogamy you cannot have commitment. This is a fallacy: commitment to a relationship is just that, and has very little to do with one’s other relationships. It is entirely possible to be highly committed to a relationship (or more than one relationship) while still seeing other people. Do not assume that nonmonogamous relationships are inherently unstable or short-lived.
Drop the “limited love” model. It is a common monogamous assumption that people have a limited amount of love, and if they give love to one person, it means they are somehow removing it from someone else. While it may in fact work this way for some monogamous people, for most people romantic love operates much like love for their family members: loving one relative or child does not somehow detract from your love for others. Of course, this does not mean that poly people can date unlimited numbers of partners, since there is always a limit on their time. It does mean that a poly person’s relationship with their second partner usually does not detract in any way from their relationship with their first partner.
Reconsider longevity and time commitment as the only measurements of relationship success. These days, most relationships are not lifelong. Rather than “til death do us part” as the sole measure of success, it is important to think about whether a relationship is/was enjoyable and fulfilling. Relationship longevity is definitely important to most poly people. However, because poly people date more, we often have relationships end more often. This is not necessarily a sign of failure. Similarly, polyamorous people often have very serious and loving relationships that involve a low time commitment, say one date every two weeks, but again this is a not a sign that the relationship is unworthy. In order to understand polyamorous relationship values, it is important to consider relationship quality and emotional connection along with the usual considerations of relationship longevity and time commitment.
Do not equate negotiated nonmonogamy with lying, cheating, or adultery. Because cheating is the most popular and well-known form of not-monogamy out there, people tend to assume that any kind of nonmonogamy involves shady dealings. In fact, the opposite is true: when nonmonogamy is possible, the reasons for sneaking around mostly disappear. Do not assume that poly people must be lying to their partners or hiding things from them or in denial. Usually they are not, though these things do happen on occasion.
When a poly person breaks up with one of their lovers, remember that it is the same as any monogamous relationship breaking up. If they still have other lovers or partners, do not assume that this will somehow compensate and they will be fine. In monogamy, the dividing line is between “in a relationship” and “not in a relationship”, but in polyamory we have such a line for every relationship. Offer support just as you would for the breakup of a monogamous relationship.
Some poly people arrange have relationships at different levels of involvement. Often these are distinguished by the terms primary/secondary. Try to remember that these are not necessarily rankings of importance or priority, but may refer to time commitment, living arrangements, or other things. Do not assume that primary/secondary arrangements are basically monogamy with sex on the side. Do not assume that secondary-style or low-involvement relationships are less important. Remember that sometimes they can last longer and/or be more fulfilling than primary-style arrangements.
There are not so few poly people that we are forced to date or hook up with every poly person we meet. So, do not assume that if you introduce two poly people they will get it on, and do not introduce them for this purpose unless you know they are compatible in other ways. (Perhaps introduce them for other purposes, for example to build poly community.) Polyamorous people have a whole raft of dating criteria in addition to “the other person must be open to polyamory”, much like monogamous people.
Understand that the line between monogamy and polyamory is not entirely clear. Some people are capable of being in both sorts of relationships, and will switch from monogamous to polyamorous or vice versa depending on who they are dating. Some monogamous people date one polyamorous person, who then has other lovers. Some polyamorous people are only involved with one person for a long period of time due to circumstances or current inclination. Try to be open-minded about people who straddle the line or switch sides. Polyamory can alternately be an identity, a practice, or an intent.
Try to catch monogamous assumptions that are built into books or media. Ask yourself questions like, “how would this romantic comedy be different if nonmonogamy was a possibility?”. Count how many songs on the radio say things based in monogamous assumptions, like “I’m your one and only” or “I’ll take your man”. See how often your friends disparage cheating or talk about finding “the one”. Think about symbols and concepts: why does a wedding ring have to mean “I’m taken”? In truth, we are swimming in a sea of monogamous expectations and assumptions. Poly people tend to see these, since we are constantly butting up against them. If you can learn to recognize these (and perhaps avoid propagating them), you will get along with poly people much better.
Assumptions About Polyamorous People
Don’t generalize about polyamorous people. There are too many poly people for this: any generalization is going to be incorrect for some (or typically, most) of us. Any time you start a sentence with “poly people are” or “poly people are not”, you have already guaranteed that the rest of the sentence is going to go badly. We get this all the time, with outsiders claiming that poly people all have a particular attitude, body shape, or sexuality. Please don’t do this. Remember that poly people are pretty much just like monogamous people, only polyamorous.
Don’t judge polyamory by the small number of poly people you know. Poly people form friendship circles with people similar to themselves, just like monogamous people. So when you first meet a group of poly people, you might be surprised by how they are all similar in some way. This may tempt you to generalize based on this group. Remember that you are only seeing a small self-selecting segment of polyamory. Trust that if you find a different polyamorous group, they will be radically different in various ways. When you meet monogamous people, you do not assume that all monogamous people are just like them – so don’t do it for polyamory.
Remember that the day-to-day life of being polyamorous is generally the same as being monogamous. We go to work, do our laundry, read a book, and/or pick up the kids from day care. We do not have daily orgies (or typically, any orgies), nor do we constantly obsess about what being polyamorous means to us.
Do not assume that a person is polyamorous only because they have not found someone special yet, and that they will become monogamous as soon as they fall in love with the right person. Monogamous people tend to make this assumption because they conflate nonmonogamy with a lack of relationship seriousness or intensity. But this assumption is typically wrong for poly people and tends to devalue our current relationships.
Do not assume poly people are sexually insatiable or even have a high sex drive. Do not assume that poly people are sexually adventurous or kinky. Some are, some aren’t. Monogamous people tend to sexualize any kind of sexualized subculture as out-of-control hedonism or unredeemably kinky. Again, this is a defensive mechanism that paints an inaccurate picture of polyamory. Try to avoid thinking of polyamory as an overly sexual subculture. Polyamory is about as sexual as monogamy.
Do not assume poly people are sluts or available. Indeed, many poly people are full up on relationships or are not looking for other reasons. Do not assume that we have casual sex: some do, some don’t. At the same time, if you have a problem with people who are slutty or have casual sex, recognize that you are prejudiced and try to change your attitude.
Poly women are polyamorous by choice and/or inclination. Do not think that they have somehow been seduced or tricked into polyamory. It is a cultural assumption that men are naturally nonmonogamous and women are naturally monogamous, but this is bunk. Women are on average just as nonmonogamous as men. Indeed, women are at the forefront of the polyamory movement and have been there since the start, as I have discussed previously.
Do not assume that poly people (particularly women) are automatically bisexual. Some are, some aren’t. Due to biphobia, bisexuality has been conflated with nonmonogamy so strongly that people tend to assume that nonmonogamous people are automatically bisexual, and vice versa. This is wrong: there are plenty of non-bisexual nonmonogamous people, and plenty of monogamous bisexuals.
Do not assume that poly people are more likely to have STDs or to engage in risky sexual behavior. Safer sex tends to be greatly valued in poly communities, and poly people tend to be on the forefront of figuring out ways to prevent STD transmission through sexual networks. Poly people have made a special effort to understand the relatively minor and easy to catch STDs. For example, there is more information on HPV available in poly forums than you can find through medical institutions. In addition, because poly people are open about their various sexual involvements, there is less shame associated with STDs and more recognition of the necessity of safer sex. The upshot of all this is that poly people are some of the most responsible people around when it comes to STDs, and less likely to engage in risky behavior than many monogamous people. (At the same time, rethink any prejudice you might have towards people who have STDs. Mainstream culture tends to assume that people with STDs are dirty, corrupted, slutty, used up, and/or damaged, and that they should never have sex again. In reality, people with STDs are just like the rest of us, only they have an STD. They deserve love, respect, and sex in their lives.)
Children raised in polyamorous households are fine. Really: your author is one of them. They do well when they are in a loving and supportive environment, and poorly when they are not, much like children in monogamous households. Do not propagate the idea that children must be damaged by exposure to polyamory, and never question a person’s ability to parent based on their polyamory. Loss of custody is one of the primary ways that poly people are punished by an unfriendly mainstream. Be sympathetic to this.
When someone tells you they are polyamorous, do not assume that they are hitting on you. They are probably not. Do not assume they are available to date or sleep with you just because they are poly. While some might be, most are not. Assuming poly people are sexually or romantically available to you tends to make you look arrogant and self-serving.
If you want to date someone in a monogamous manner, say so explicitly early in the relationship. Do not assume that they are inclined to be monogamous. Don’t assume that because you slept together (moved in, met the parents, etc) that you must be monogamous now. Talking about it now avoids miscommunications and problems later.
Do not use “I want to see other people” as code for “let’s break up”. If you want to break up with someone, tell them already and break up with them while keeping your integrity intact. Many monogamous people use this breakup excuse, and it does a lot of damage to nonmonogamous people because when we then say “I want to see other people”, it is interpreted as the prelude to a breakup. Along the same lines, do not start cheating on someone in order to break up with them.
Do not use monogamy as the marker for when a relationship has become committed. If you want to commit to someone and have them commit to you, have that conversation explicitly. There is a general monogamous practice of using “let’s stop seeing other people” as the mark of when a relationship gets serious. This leads to a lot of misunderstandings since these two things are not necessarily related. In addition, it perpetuates the idea that nonmonogamy is inherently not committed.
Date a poly person only if you are willing to either become poly yourself or get over your jealousy enough so that they can date other people. Understand that this is not an easy process, and may take years of effort. A switch to polyamory is often life-changing in serious ways. Go for it if you are really into it, but if you are hesitant or unsure, please save yourself (and them) the drama and heartbreak.
Do not start dating a poly (or really, any nonmonogamous) person with the assumption that once you and they fall in love, they will be monogamous with you. They probably will not, and this leads to heartbreak on all sides. If a person says to you that they plan on being nonmonogamous indefinitely, believe them. Never say you are fine with being nonmonogamous unless you will still be fine with it when the relationship has lasted for years.
Do not date a poly person as a side fling or as filler between monogamous relationships, unless you have made the situation clear to them and they have agreed. Monogamous people tend to assume that because a person is poly and/or involved with someone else, they are not taking the relationship seriously and thus cannot be hurt. Many of us have been hurt by a person who eventually made it clear that we were a side event for them because of our nonmonogamy.
Do not use a poly person to cheat on your monogamous partner. Don’t lie to a poly person and say that your partner is okay with you dating when they are not. We see this a lot, and many of us have been burned by this kind of situation. Do not be surprised if a poly person insists on meeting with your partner before dating you or having sex with you. Many poly people avoid DADT (Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell) relationships to avoid ending up in this situation. Similarly, do not cheat and then declare that you want to be polyamorous when you are discovered.